Star cast takes on financial crisis in HBO film 'Too Big to Fail'

Paul Giamatti (left) plays Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, in HBO’s “Too Big to Fail.” William Hurt plays Henry Paulson, secretary of the treasury.

PASADENA, Calif. -- You might not think that the financial crisis three years ago would be fodder for stimulating drama. But some TV brokers are speculating that you're wrong.

On Monday, HBO is offering "Too Big to Fail," the tale of what was happening behind the scenes as banks folded, industry staggered and the housing market crumbled.

Based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the film is directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential" ) with a roster of heavy-hitting stars like James Woods, William Hurt, Topher Grace, Tony Shalhoub, Matthew Modine and Paul Giamatti.

"I think that this story and this particular film and the book was really an opportunity to try to take the public inside the room so they could see what happened, so they could actually see the decisions that were made and what the opportunities were and the choices were that they actually had," says Sorkin.

"In hindsight, everything looks black-and-white. But with 20/20 hindsight, it's different. When you're actually there, the choices were very different. And I think that this particular project really puts a focus on that. You get to see really what we were up against and how this was perhaps the most catastrophic thing that had happened in our economy since the Great Depression and that we were really on the edge. People don't really appreciate often how close to the edge we really were," he says.

Hurt portrays Henry Paulson, secretary of the Treasury and former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. "I got to play a guy who crosses the line from the private sector to the public sector," he says.

Hurt spent considerable time with Paulson. "He was very generous with his time, for a lot of reasons. So that was utterly fascinating for me. And he was open, I think. So that was a thrill."

Peter Gould, who wrote the screenplay, says he wasn't worried about building tension.

"Making it dramatic really wasn't that much of a challenge because the events were extraordinary. ... So, in terms of a point of view, I think that what we're really trying to do is to tease out what it looked like from the inside ... really what did it look like inside the submarine while they were working on this crisis? The other part is ... ultimately it is a disaster movie, and so you have people who are coping with this disaster under a lot of stress."

Sorkin says he's pleased with the return from his 12-month investment in the book. "As a writer who was toiling away for a year, sleeping five or six hours, trying to write this book almost in real time as the crisis was unfolding, you don't know if anyone is ever going to read the book, let alone get the opportunity to have a director or an actor of this stature playing these characters and bringing this story to life.

"So for me, I'm over the moon. I'm thrilled about it. I think Peter did a tremendous job in really creating a script that's dramatic, but hews in truth to the book and to the story of what actually happened. And I think it's a credit to all of them."