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'A Man in Full' chronicles the final 10 days of a wealthy, charismatic villain


This is FRESH AIR. Tom Wolfe's first and best-known novel was "The Bonfire Of The Vanities." His second novel, called "A Man In Full," was also about the morals and lack of them among the wealthy and powerful. It's now been adapted by David E. Kelley into a new Netflix series starring Jeff Bridges (ph) and Diane Lane. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Way back in 1986, David E. Kelley was a young lawyer, enlisted by TV producer Steven Bochco to come to Hollywood and write scripts for Bochco's NBC drama series "LA Law." Kelley turned out to be a prolific and creative writer, providing many of that show's best and most memorable episodes. At the same time, new-wave journalist Tom Wolfe was trying his hand at writing novels, turning out his own creative and memorable stories - "Bonfire Of The Vanities," for one, followed by "A Man In Full."

Kelley went on to create and write his own Emmy-winning TV series, including "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and "Boston Legal." More recently, he's had success in a slightly different line of TV work, adapting existing novels for television - "Big Little Lies," "Mr. Mercedes," "Goliath." Now, for Netflix, he turns to Tom Wolfe's "A Man In Full," updating it to a modern-day setting. In so doing, he manages to explore the rich and famous and the legal and prison systems in ways that echo everything from the #MeToo movement and racially motivated police brutality to the behavior of certain modern political figures.

BIANCULLI: The man put under a magnifying glass is Charlie Croker, a wealthy Atlanta businessman played by Jeff Daniels. As we meet Charlie in the opening scene, he's on the floor dead. But then we flash back 10 days to Charlie's 60th birthday party. He's holding it for himself, sparing no expense. And we follow him from there, as various forces conspire to bring him down or help him out, as he faces sudden bankruptcy when his bank demands repayment of his very large loan.

Charlie isn't a very likable figure, but he is a charismatic one. And Jeff Daniels has played that type of villain before in the Netflix Western "Godless" and embraced it with vigor and power to spare. He does that here, too, creating a formidable man who's used to throwing his weight around. But the secret to David Kelley's TV series was that he always made sure the protagonists in his stories were pitted against equally powerful antagonists. That's certainly the case with Harry Zale, the bank officer who calls Charlie into his office to demand repayment.

He's played by Bill Camp, who last played opposite Daniels in the TV series "American Rust." After their tense meeting, Harry and Charlie shake hands as Charlie's young wife looks on. But their handshake grips are so tight that the two men wince as they say goodbye.


JEFF DANIELS: (As Charlie Croker) Good to meet you, Harry.

BILL CAMP: (As Harry Zale) Pleasure.

DANIELS: (As Charlie Croker) You speak to me like that in front of my bride...

CAMP: (As Harry Zale) Sorry, I didn't realize she'd be here. Maybe next time leave the misses back home in the trophy case.

BIANCULLI: Later in the series, Charlie also meets his match in Wes Jordan, who's running for reelection as mayor and wants Charlie's help in smearing his opponent. Charlie, a former college football star, is used to being the alpha dog at any meeting. But when Charlie finally meets the mayor face-to-face to talk terms, once again, Charlie finds that's not the case. William Jackson Harper plays the mayor.


WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (As Wes Jordan) I certainly appreciate you coming in. I can also appreciate that we may differ some on our politics.

DANIELS: (As Charlie Croker) I'm here, Mr. Mayor.

HARPER: (As Wes Jordan) Well, this is obviously a delicate situation, one that requires some discretion. Norman Bagovitch becoming mayor has the potential to do enormous damage to this city. I'm sure that we can both agree on that.

DANIELS: (As Charlie Croker) How can I be of help?

HARPER: (As Wes Jordan) Yeah, I'm getting to that. Here, sit down. You're the 60-minute man. You enjoy a great deal of celebrity here in Georgia, goodwill that I hope to trade on. The problem? You're going bankrupt. And should that become public, your celebrity, your word, your power of influence, it all becomes compromised. So we need to move with a certain efficiency here.

DANIELS: (As Charlie Croker) I'm not going bankrupt.

HARPER: (As Wes Jordan) It would be best if you checked your bull**** at the door. I know a lot of what goes on at Planters Bank (ph). We - and I'm talking about the city here. We keep a lot of our deposits, municipal deposits, at this bank. I'm talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that they can lend based on those deposits. They will do a lot to keep me happy. And if you were to damage Norman Bagovitch's mayoral prospects, the City of Atlanta would be indebted to you. I would be indebted to you.

DANIELS: (As Charlie Croker) Spit it out, your honor.

HARPER: (As Wes Jordan) I will modulate my spit at my own pace.

BIANCULLI: The cast of "A Man In Full" features some clear standouts. Diane Lane as Charlie's ex-wife manages to capture the satirical comedy of Tom Wolfe's character while still creating a believable, likable human being. Also really good in their supporting roles are Roger White as Charlie's attorney and Jon Michael Hill as one of Charlie's employees suddenly caught up in the legal and prison systems. They're so good, as are Diane Lane as the ex-wife and William Jackson Harper as the mayor, that this series could just as easily have been about any one of them. Loyal Kelley fans also may recognize familiar faces from his various TV series. There's Lucy Liu from "Ally McBeal" and the judge is from "Boston Public," and one of Charlie's advisers is from "Boston Legal."

Kelley adapted all six episodes himself, but divided directorial chores between two other acclaimed talents, Regina Hall (ph) and Thomas Schlamme. The actors, directors and story all work to tighten the noose around Charlie. The tension and excitement and surprise in "A Man In Full" isn't about whether he survives - we know he doesn't - but what he does in his final 10 days. Even with death as the last stop, it turns out to be the journey, not the destination, that matters the most.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli teaches television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "A Man In Full," now streaming on Netflix. On tomorrow's show, WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner talks about the physical and emotional hell of her nearly 300 days in Russian prisons, and what it's been like to be reunited with her wife and her team, the Phoenix Mercury. She's about to start her second season since returning to the U.S. Less than a year and a half ago. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: May 7, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
The audio version of this story incorrectly identifies the stars of A Man in Full as Jeff Bridges. The series stars Jeff Daniels. The audio version of the story also states that Regina Hall directed some of the series' episodes. In fact, they were directed by Regina King.
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.

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