"Too Big to Fail," which premieres Monday on HBO, is the latest of that network's high-toned original films ("Recount," "The Late Shift," "From the Earth to the Moon," the upcoming "Game Change") in which a large cast of medium-big-to-big-named actors assume the skin of the real people to put you backstage at history. In this case — the story of the 2008 financial meltdown and the attempt to keep us all from ruin — the paint is barely dry on the actual events. Indeed, their ongoing consequences will affect the next election.
Directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "8 Mile") from a screenplay by Peter Gould ("Breaking Bad") and based on Andrew Ross Sorkin's book of the same name, "Too Big to Fail" is pretty consistent low-key entertainment if not exactly enlightening (because it is an impersonation of the truth) or gripping (because we already know how it sort of ends). Structurally, it is a little like an episode of "House," a series of surgeries and injections requiring further surgeries and injections but without the tidy fourth-act cure, and a little like a disaster movie, where the disaster is still rumbling on at the movie's end, just not as awfully as it might have, and a little like a samurai movie, where the soldiers carry cellphones instead of swords, minus the action. Hanson's direction is admirably straightforward; he doesn't try to compensate for what is basically a story of rich white men talking about money with overcomposed or flashy visuals or an unsettling sound design.
In some respects I am a bear of little brain. Fannie Mae will always be the title of a Buster Brown song to me, and at first much of the matter here and many of the many characters went by in a blur of blue suits and gobbledygook — much like my experience of the crisis itself, for that matter. Eventually, the players resolve vaguely into teams, after which watching is less about keeping the many facts straight than tracking the energy flow.
Still, the filmmakers have tried to touch all the important bases, and there are possibly six lines in the film that do not prompt one to ask, "Will this be on the test?" (There is one about doughnuts, one about oatmeal, one about a hawk, one about a frog, one about Christian Science and one about Al Capone's gun; they are supposed to add a dash of naturalism, and they stick out a mile.) Because they have a lot to tell you, movies like "Too Big to Fail" inevitably have something of the shorthand quality of a Presidents Day pageant: "Who has chopped down my cherry tree?" "It was I, with my little hatchet." "God bless you, Mr. President!"
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson (William Hurt) is our hero here, flanked by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) and then-president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Timothy F. Geithner (Billy Crudup). Of the bankers and money men — played by the power-suited likes of Tony Shalhoub, Bill Pullman, Michael O'Keefe and Matthew Modine — only James Woods' Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, constitutes more than a cameo, in part because Lehman was the firm that was allowed to fail and in part because Fuld's famously difficult demeanor guaranteed him screen time. As support staff on Team Paulson, Topher Grace, Cynthia Nixon, Joey Slotnick and Ayad Akhtar all do heavy lifting lightly.
The film's main argument, really, is that we should look kindly upon Paulson and the best he tried to do; the other characters we rate by whether they help or hinder him. What moral voice there is here mostly comes out of his mouth. "We've been late on everything," he admits, and admits also that no one in power wanted to regulate the financial industry because "We were making too much money." (That's about as pointed as the film gets on the subject of corporate greed.) Hurt, who (like his costars) seems to be playing the script rather than imitating the person whose name he bears, is a tall tower of movie-star appeal, and it does not hurt our opinion of Paulson that Kathy Baker plays his wife, although she has not much to do but sympathize.
He: Lehman's gone.
She: Oh, honey.