Too Big To Fail is an important, triumphant political thriller, equal parts In The Loop, JFK, All The President’s Men and Glengarry Glen Ross. It depicts some semblance of the 2008 financial crisis, the major and minor players filled out by a dreamboat cast of ace, recognizable character actors. Events unfold in terse Wikipedia shorthand, yet the film is thorough enough that it improves upon repeat viewing. It was directed by Curtis Hanson, the filmmaker responsible for the legendary L.A. Confidential and the very possibly superior Wonder Boys. There will be many motion pictures about those bewildering days, but rather a lot of circumstances will have to align to produce a film so effective as this. It deserves a considerable audience; it is available this minute on HBO On Demand.
Steered to screen by fastidious acting legend William Hurt–who leads the cast as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson–Too Big To Fail simmers Andrew Ross Sorkin’s 640-page book of the same name down to a 100-minute potboiler that somehow manages not to depress. Hanson’s roster of performers not only eases the haywire nature of a labyrinthine story; it leavens the heady proceedings with film-lover familiarity. There’s Bill Pullman, all open-collar dash as Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. James Woods, horking down scenery as doomed Lehman Brothers CEO Richard “Dick” Fuld. Paul Giamatti, stealing away his scenes as Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Billy Crudup, Tony Shalhoub, Cynthia Nixon, Matthew Modine. Glance away and you’ll miss Dan Hedaya as Barney Frank. Ed Asner is Warren Buffett. Et cetera, et al.
Despite the crowded cast, few scenes feel overstuffed. Spare mistakes–unraveled exposition, glib momentary shades of reactionary liberalism–are plowed under by the movie’s 4/4 pace. A laughable attempt to snake John McCain onscreen is neutralized by the startling accuracy of the actress portraying Nancy Pelosi (Linda Glick). A friendly cheekiness presides, even in essential subtitles that dilineate the characters, a steady flow of recognizable names spiked on occasion by identifications such as “Warren Buffett: World’s Richest Man.” It of course is easy to read Too Big To Fail as “liberal,” but its considerable strengths of execution and factual adherence justify its occasional forays into artistic license.
Despite the abundance of fine acting on display (Giamatti, in particular, is finer than he’s been in years) the real rediscovery of Fail is director Hanson. A longtime studio hack who went beyond legitimate with Confidental, Boys and forgotten gem 8 Mile, Hanson plummeted to a career nadir with 2007’s Lucky You. His rebound from that unfortunate picture is this, a two-hand slam, and all the strengths of his finest films–staging, casting, acerbic wit, reluctant heart, brevity–coalesce and uplift what very well, in more aggressive and impatient hands, could have been a pedantic meltdown, an unwieldy Michael Moore-ality play eager to paint a catastrophic set of circumstances as the singular fault of this guy or the other.
Too Big To Fail is not that. It is a very, very good film; time may reveal it to be a great one. It deserves the attention of anyone who appreciates classic filmmaking, or cinematic respect for audience intelligence. It’s also a pretty damn good primer on what was the quiet Cuban Missile Crisis of a very distracted era.