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HBO's Too Big to Fail is all business in its dramatization of "epochal" 2008 financial crisis

William Hurt excels as treasury secretary/dealmaker Henry Paulson. HBO photo

Leave it to HBO to not only tackle this daunting, sex-less numbers game, but to somehow make it dramatically interesting.

Not spectacularly entertaining, mind you. But a bravura lead performance by William Hurt and some early heavy lifting by James Woods give Too Big to Fail (Monday, May 23rd, 8 p.m. central) enough currency to carry it through this complex tale of 2008's near-collapse of the U.S. economy. Expensive-looking suits get a full workout, too, during the last late summer months of George W. Bush's presidency. Everyone feels the heat.

Hurt plays U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry "Hank" Paulson, former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Woods is profane, mercurial Dick Fuld, whose Lehman Brothers investment bank was the only one to miss out on a government bailout. Instead it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2008 while other titans of Wall Street either steeled themselves or scrambled to make deals. The film is adapted from the same-named book by New York Times financial reporter/columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is no relation to Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network/The West Wing).

Woods is ever-ready to chew scenery, but at best is guilty of only munching this time around. The film needs an attention-getting bulldog like him in its early going, and Woods is up to the task. His Fuld is a stone-stubborn f-bomb dropper who just can't fathom what's happened to his beloved company.

Hurt's Paulson soon comes to the fore, though, plugging away in the midst of the biggest financial calamity since the Great Depression. His portrayal is compelling to the core under the direction of accomplished Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Paulson at first methodically directs his troops before his temper shortens, his desperation grows and his physical appearance deteriorates.

"There's a deal to be made here. I'm going to make the deal," he initially says of saving Lehman Brothers from going under.

But Paulson's persuasive powers fail him in this case. "I don't know what's going to happen," he finally tells his steadfastly loyal wife, Wendy (a chip-in role for the always good Kathy Baker, who also can be seen on Sunday night in CBS' seventh Jesse Stone movie).

A number of other familiar faces drop in and out, including Cynthia Nixon, Ed Asner, Paul Giamatti, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, Tony Shalhoub, Evan Handler and Dan Hedaya.

Nixon, the former Sex and the City star, is effective in the only woman's part of any real import. She plays assistant secretary of the Treasury Michele Davis, who's in on all of his big decisions. Asner has just two brief scenes as power-broking Warren Buffett, one of them in a fast food restaurant with his grandkids. The iconic actor is outfitted with a blondish toupee as Buffett. Frankly, it looks fairly ridiculous on him at this stage of his career.

Lesser known Billy Crudup, who played a young J. Edgar Hoover in Public Enemies, has a key role as Timothy Geithner, President Obama's current treasury secretary. In Too Big to Fail, he's still the hard-driving president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Paulson leans on him heavily as a man of both action and vision, with Crudup breathing considerable life into his role as Batman's Robin.

Too Big to Fail does a solid job of outlining how America got to this near-meltdown of the economy, with a number of real-life TV journalists seen in recurring clips from those times after presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both talk up the virtues of bank de-regulation.

"This project is not only good for the soul of the country. It's good for the pocketbook as well," the real-life Bush says of one such initiative.

But it wasn't, with "toxic" onetime real estate assets such as sub-prime mortgages bringing Lehman Brothers to its knees while other banks began to buckle. Paulson eventually steered a controversial bailout bill through Congress in which nine big banking firms agreed to accept $125 billion in government money via the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

"I hope they use the money the way we're asking them to. They will lend it out, won't they?" asks Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (Giamatti).

"Of course they will," Paulson says, repeating that assurance to convince himself.

But they didn't. And Too Big to Fail effectively follows the money while humanizing most of the moneychangers.