To appreciate the fullness of the HBO film “Too Big to Fail,” a notepad should be required to help keep all the names in check. Exploring the 2008 Financial Meltdown in 95 minutes, director Curtis Hanson doesn’t simply walk through the details, he gallops, channeling the mighty power of The Flash to sprint from encounter to encounter while arranging the complex puzzle pieces that worm forth from pits of the business world to the offices in Washington D.C. The picture is determined, but oddly unnecessary and tiring to follow, though the sheer wallop of star power collected here successfully distracts from the crippling weight of impenetrable exposition.
At the film’s core is Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson (William Hurt), who watched as the world of stocks and banks imploded, creating a domino effect that brought America to the brink of disaster. The characters are numerous, but the names are unforgettable: Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti), Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld (James Woods), Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup), and Warren Buffet (Edward Asner). Over the course of only a few months, Paulson and his team (including Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon) fought, schemed, and begged for action, doing whatever they could to keep the banks in business, facing cold stares from crumbling financial institutions (including Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, and Tony Shalhoub) while the clock ticked down to catastrophe.
Adapted by Peter Gould from the novel by Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Too Big to Fail” is the least exciting disaster movie Irwin Allen never made. Making a feature out of elaborate financial particulars and backroom dealing is a troubling prospect, providing Hanson with a ripe challenge to yank colorful cinema out of monotone journalism while retaining the investigative concentration of the original text. The filmmaker has fashioned crash-helmeted sophistication here, using an excess of information to stun potential viewers into submission, while arranging a few terribly crude scenes that break down the specifics of the crisis for the layman (roughly 95% of the viewing audience).
The objective is commendable, but the film is leaden, racing through a complex parade of negotiations and conversations meant to shed light on the panic scenarios of the moment. Hanson nails the tension in the room, but the data blinds the human element of the feature, with every character an Aaron Sorkin cliché, walking and talking through head-spinning banking minutiae. “Too Big to Fail” shouldn’t be penalized for playing smart, but that icy erudition kneecaps the urgency the script pursues, looking to turn the ways of Lehman Brothers and AIG into Brian De Palma set-pieces, with a community of bothered actors projecting eye-twitching fear, though the picture rarely comes to a boil. Save for Hurt and his finely shaded work as the man with the country on his shoulders, the majority of the performances are robotic, spewing facts and figures without making the personalities stick. “Too Big to Fail” is cold to the touch.
Hanson breaks out the note cards and monologues to keep viewers up on the details, laboring to make the picture intelligible despite a suffocating amount of characters and half-explored relationships. “Too Big to Fail” is a glossy package, awfully determined to make a profound impression. Without much in the way of essence behind the incredible display of thespian memorization skills, it all falls flat. Go rent “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s harrowing financial meltdown documentary instead.