Topher Grace, William Hurt | POWER PLAYERS Topher Grace and William Hurt in HBO's Too Big to Fail
Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Too Big To Fail, based on the Andrew Ross Sorkin bestseller of the same name, should not be as extravagantly entertaining as it is. After all, this is a TV movie about the 2008 financial meltdown, with a huge cast in business suits talking about the screwed-up system that allowed millions of hard-working Americans to lose their homes. Yet as directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential; 8 Mile), what could have been a snoozy jeremiad becomes something closer to a thriller.

Hanson and screenwriter Peter Gould stick with Sorkin's notion that the dramatic center of this obscene mess was Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt, looking perpetually wounded). Paulson is our bridge between the failing banks (having previously been CEO of Goldman Sachs) and failing government policy. From him flows a tale of powerful mostly-men who are anxious, above all, to maintain their profit margins and personal wealth, and, secondarily, to prevent the American economy from collapsing.

Embodying macho aggression with snake-oil smoothness is James Woods as Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld. At the other extreme, Tim Geithner, chairman of the Federal Reserve, is portrayed by Billy Crudup as a sweaty weasel who'd make a deal with anyone, on any terms, if it took the pressure off him.

The sheer, cynical heartlessness of nearly everyone on-screen — from a wonderfully blunt Tony Shalhoub as Morgan Stanley's John Mack to Topher Grace as a calculating Paulson aide — is both dismaying and riveting. When Paul Giamatti's Ben Bernake says quietly that they're dealing with "the worst economy since The Great Depression," no one pays much attention. Which makes Too Big To Fail all the more chilling. B+