"American Hustle" and Prosecutorial Politics
In this town, money talks and bullshit walks.
-PA Rep. Ozzie Myers on his Abscam tape
Political sports scorekeeper Chris Matthews recently predicted American Hustle would become a classic film of American politics of the order of Citizen Kane. I’d add All the King’s Men and All the President’s Men.
What’s so wonderful about American Hustle is that it’s very serious at the same time that it has great fun with a contemporary political system dominated by the archetype of the aggressive prosecutor. While a servant of the state, he or she ruthlessly advances a career by bringing down others. Dishonesty and the entrapping scam are major tools of the trade.
With Chris Christie, the whole smelly system has narratively come full circle. An aggressive federal prosecutor with eyes on the White House is suddenly the hunted prey of other hungry prosecutors looking for a career boost. The attorney credited with getting the goods to put away Governor Blagojevic in Illinois has been hired to go for Christie.
While American Hustle may be based on the late seventies Abscam scandal, it’s more art than journalism or history. “Some of this actually happened,” we’re told on screen up front. Like all good fiction based on reality, the art is in finding a deeper truth. In this case, writer Eric Warren Singer and writer/director David O. Russell have changed the names to make it work in a mythic mind space. Great acting enriches a great script. (In the photo above, left to right, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Jenner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.)
The protagonist is a petty conman with a beer gut and a bad comb-over named Irving played by Christian Bale. He’s married to Rosalyn played by Jennifer Lawrence. Irving has adopted Roselyn’s small son, who he dearly loves. A moral or ethical compass is not Irving’s strong suit. He’s a man on the edge of disaster surviving on scams that take advantage of other desperate people in search of loans. For a hefty fee, he will link them to phony friends with money to loan. Then he meets Sydney played by Amy Adams. He’s smitten. With her brains and charm, the scam takes flight.
Everything is looking up until FBI agent Richie played by Bradley Cooper scams the scammers and, once his marks are snagged, puts the squeeze on them to jointly scam Carmine, the former mayor of Camden, played by Jeremy Renner. Carmine, now a major power in the New Jersey legislature, is manipulated into lining up a host of congressmen for bribes in order to arrange for US citizenship for a phony Arab sheik (he’s actually a Mexican) so Victor, a very scary mobster played by Robert DeNiro, can sell his fellow Jersey gumbas to take the foreign sheik’s money in order to develop Atlantic City.