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Paulson Cast as Stoic Savior in ‘Too Big’ Wall Street Saga: TV

William Hurt in
William Hurt in "Too Big to Fail." The show debuts on Monday, May 23, on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Photographer: Macall B. Polay/HBO via Bloomberg

May 21 (Bloomberg) -- Andrew Ross Sorkin’s sprawling best-seller “Too Big to Fail” is now a TV movie that transforms the complex tale of Wall Street greed into a knight-in-shining-armor saga.

The knight is Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, portrayed by William Hurt as a stoic savior who endures sleepless nights and a nervous stomach to forestall the economic meltdown.

“What do I say when they ask me why it wasn’t regulated?” asks a Treasury Department official (Cynthia Nixon), boning up for a press conference to explain bundled home loans and the potential collapse of AIG.

“No one wanted it,” Paulson replies. “They were making too much money.”

Director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Peter Gould clearly needed a hero to transform murky, complex reality into save-the-day storytelling.

In their HBO version, which airs Monday night, Paulson rights the wrongs of money-hungry chief executives like James Woods’s antic Lehman Brothers boss Dick Fuld and ineffective politicos like Peter Hermann’s hapless SEC chairman Christopher Cox.

The ploy works as a dramatic device, much as it did for that other Sorkin (Aaron), who fashioned “The West Wing” from an idealized presidency. But the chief shortcoming of the Paulson-engineered cash injections -- public money ending up as corporate profit -- isn’t noted until the very end.

Master of Universe

The movie, crisply edited to 98 minutes, opens in May 2008 as Lehman’s stock price is plummeting and ends that October with the blood-staunching bailout of nine major U.S. banks.

It efficiently sketches the personalities behind the lofty corporate titles and government positions. Bill Pullman is Master of the Universe personified as JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon. The real Timothy Geithner, president in 2008 of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, will no doubt be flattered by handsome Billy Crudup’s conscientious portrait.

Despite the blue-chip ensemble, some of the characters are reduced to one-note simplicity. Edward Asner’s Warren Buffett is all Yoda-like wisdom, a gentle guru sharing ice cream with the grandkids while doling out advice to the nation’s fattest cats.

“Too Big to Fail” airs May 23 on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2

‘Last Frontier’

PBS’s ever-reliable “Nature” series ends its three-part “Bears of the Last Frontier” miniseries with close-ups of the majestic animals as they eke out survival in their gorgeous but increasingly hostile Alaskan terrain.

Adventurer and biologist Chris Morgan undertook a yearlong motorcycle journey through the state’s mountains, tundra, coasts and cities to track and film various bear species. The first two episodes focused on black bear and grizzlies. The final program, “Arctic Wanderers,” concentrates on polar bears.

Morgan and his small crew arrive in the small town of Kaktovik in northern Alaska just as winter arrives and temperatures plummet. Global warming trends have left the area’s sea ice thinner than it used to be, though, and Morgan’s crew captures heart-wrenching images of polar bears exhausting themselves by falling through weak ice and lifting their massive heft from the water.

The documentary never succumbs to the anthropomorphic kitsch so common on other nature programs. Even the final segment, in which a mama grizzly teaches her cubs to fish for salmon, resists the urge to make the babies cuddly. They inspire awe instead.

“Bears of the Last Frontier: Arctic Wanderers” airs May 22 on PBS stations at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

‘4th and Forever’

Billed as a real-life “Friday Night Lights,” Current TV’s new documentary series “4th and Forever” stumbles a yard or two short of that goal. The hard-knock lives of high-school athletes pinning their hopes on gridiron victory is compelling stuff, even though the show relies too heavily on a well-worn reality TV playbook.

The series chronicles the 2010 season of California’s Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Once touted by Sports Illustrated as the Sports School of the Century, Poly and its head coach Raul Lara struggle to redeem themselves from a dismal 2009 season.

The stakes are highest for students like Chaiyse Hales, a junior quarterback who hasn’t seen his father in five years, and Jeremiah Hollowell, a senior raising a toddler son. Football is their way out of dead-end lives.

The students’ stories aren’t always well-served by the reality-show approach. The first two half-hour episodes feel stuffed with slow-motion establishing shots, contrived interactions and melodramatic music, padding the worthy players with unexceptional gear.

“4th and Forever” debuts May 26 on Current TV at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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