What I know about the financial world could fit on the back of a check, which is why I was so eager to get my hands on Andrew Ross Sorkin's "Too Big to Fail," a book that promised to explain the 2008 financial crisis in a way that even dummies could comprehend.
The publishers overestimated my intelligence. Sorkin wrote a terrific thriller, but for those of us who squeaked out a C-minus in economics, there's an overwhelming number of references to short sellers, downgrades and subprime mortgages.
Thank goodness for TV.
HBO's adaptation, premiering Monday, streamlines those 618 pages into a 98-minute movie that's as thrilling and accessible as a Vin Diesel movie. Except more brutal.
Screenwriter Peter Gould ("Breaking Bad") has excised much of the mathematical mumbo jumbo, and director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") has swept past much of the back story, zeroing in on the two most dramatic months of 2008 when self-inflated billionaires who commuted in helicopters and wore tuxedos to happy hour were on the verge of wetting their pants. Even if you don't understand all of the economic details, you can see it in the faces of the familiar cast members: This is the Apocalypse. Now.
Almost every player is sketched with broad strokes, an approach that works just fine for disaster movies -- and no less for a crisis as complex and fast-moving as this one. Paul Giamatti plays Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke as a soft-spoken angel of death, so frightened by the thought of another Great Depression that his stomach can handle only oatmeal. Billy Crudup's Timothy Geithner is a fitness freak, making sweaty-palmed decisions for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York while jogging down Wall Street or playing racquetball. As Warren Buffett, Edward Asner reprises his role from "Elf" as a grandfatherly Santa Claus. Dick Fuld, the vulgarity-spitting, scotch-guzzling chairman of Lehman Brothers, will remind you of James Woods, and not only because he's played by James Woods.
The only fully drawn character is Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the movie's moral compass. William Hurt plays him as if the weight of the world rests on his shoulders -- and there's a strong argument to be made that it did. At some points, he intimidates anyone who gets in his way, including presidential candidate John McCain. But at times he's so distraught that he upchucks his cookies. It's a beautifully layered performance, the kind Hurt turns in every couple of years to remind us that he's still one of our finest actors.
The film does ring one false note, but it serves a worthy purpose. Near the end of the film, the Treasury Department's public affairs expert (Cynthia Nixon) frets about how she'll explain the crisis to the press. She presents her boss's team a "dumbed down" version of events that even reporters can understand.
It's a familiar -- and often clumsy -- storytelling tactic in movies, but in this case, a Cliffs Notes version of events is just what the dummy ordered.