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.
That’s the spine of the tale. It’s important that the key mark, ex-Camden Mayor Carmine, turns out to be a warm and fairly honest man who really wants to help the citizens of New Jersey and kick off development in the state. To soften up their mark, Irving and his wife Roselyn develop a friendship with Carmine and his wife that is touching and real. At this point, in the middle of the scam, we realize Irving loves both of the women he’s involved with. They may be maddening but they’re also life rings for a drowning man, a predicament that’s as poignant as it’s often hilarious.
Prosecutors have always been powerful forces in society. But never have they seemed so out of control and so like prancing roosters. This no doubt has to do with a complex of fears: There’s the fear of violent crime and the stigmatizations of the Drug War. Child molesters are lurking in the bushes, on the internet and even in the sacristy to steal our children’s innocence. There’s raving lunatics with guns. There’s the fear of terrorists and the obsessive hunt for angry young Middle Eastern men bent, we’re told, on destroying our way of life. And finally there’s the white-collar thief, or to use the term of art used in the film, the “skimmers.”
This litany of fears is exactly what Franklin Roosevelt said citizens should fear most. The rise of self-serving, vengeful prosecutors as a political archetype is the natural result of giving in to such fears. When vengeance becomes the core response to fear, citizens become blinded to the kinds of solutions that might actually address their problems. Demanding demons to punish and scapegoats to slaughter may be emotionally satisfying in the short-term, but to solve problems requires understanding, which demands humility and patience and the ability to see one’s own contribution to a problem.
Here, we’ll inject a chorus of Fox News conservatives to whine about silly liberals and the laughable straw dog of calling for the elimination of prosecutors and the police they depend on and the prisons they send people to for punishment. That kind of reduction is part of the problem. The point is not to eliminate the criminal justice system; the point is to stop giving prosecutors so much power, and — here’s the real deal — to hold them accountable when they break the rules and abuse their power. And, if necessary, to put them in jail as examples for others.
The political and economic climate in which American Hustle is set is the period just before Ronald Reagan strides into town as a second string actor with an agenda to save America from the sludge pit of malaise. You know how the paean goes: He rode into town on a white horse and returned America to its true glory as a “shining city on a hill.” America had picked up the baton of failing western colonialism and it was now ready to finally win the Cold War and save the world from the communist menace following that great struggle in Vietnam.
That history, of course, was never only about beating the communists. It was also about Manifest Destiny and extending the Myth of American Exceptionalism, a drive that reached back to include the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, two immense enterprises all good Americans now either damn (slavery) or don’t like to think about (the slaughter of all those Indians).
Americans are incapable of holding themselves accountable. We don’t have a reverse gear in our national gearbox; we always get over messes by assuming blinders and moving forward. We may slowly realize we’ve gone a bit too far and, tragically, slaughtered a bit too many people in pursuit of some self-justified crusade — or maybe we destroyed something we quite nicely demonized before we realized the demonization was a bit too heavy-handed and, well, not actually justified. Like Chris Christie actually just did, we say, “Sure, mistakes were made.” But we never dwell on the negative. It’s un-American to do so. Like the shark that must keep moving lest oxygenated water be prevented from rushing through its gills, Americans have to move forward. It’s in our DNA. America may stumble, but it gets up and brushes the dust off its immense power and sets off forward with new goals and new dragons to slay.
This is how change happens in America — on the wreckage left behind.
To address the failures of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, we have changed our doctrine of warfare significantly from massive armies to the precision of drone strikes and special ops raids. The same goes for the nation’s domestic politics. Instead of wars on poverty, which we’re told only encourage more poverty, we have the aggressive and hungry prosecutor. Instead of addressing the heart of an issue, the prosecutor criminalizes and assaults the leaders and the go-to people who symbolize a problem.
We read regularly of wrongly imprisoned inmates who gain their freedom after serving multiple years in prison. It has become a cliché story. Often a prosecutor must sign off on releasing these men and women. And too often, in order to get that prosecutor to agree, the inmate must sign away his rights to hold the prosecutor accountable for things like withholding evidence of innocence or utilizing blatantly false confessions — things that are criminal in themselves.
It’s this kind of corrupt game that American Hustle turns on its head and has fun with. It’s made clear in the film that those actually caught in the FBI scam are small fish. The really big corrupt fish are too hard to land. They’re also likely too tied in with government. What the FBI scam in the movie amounts to is a dirty little deal that winnows out a few rotten apples while it advances the career of a lean and hungry US attorney.
None of the scamming acts in the film really matter, except to the individuals involved. The money and power merry-go-round keeps on going. I won’t give the film’s ending away, except to say that love wins. Sort of. And individual human redemption is possible. Sort of. Of all the elements in play, the federal prosecution team comes out smelling the worst.
The film left me with the idea that corruption and abuse of power — not left or right ideologies — is the true enemy in American politics. Since the Reagan Revolution and the rise of today’s hi-tech, computer-based financial carnival, we’ve arrived at a moment in history where, thanks to Citizens United and the rest, bribery has essentially been made legal. Back in the late seventies, Ozzie Myers could never have imagined how right-on he was when he told the scammers on tape, “In this town, money talks and bullshit walks.”
So, no, this is not a call to eliminate prosecutors. After all, who would be around to run Brit Hume’s manly tough guy Chris Christie to ground for his Soprano-land strong-arm politics.
Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow exposes decades of racially-focused prosecutorial abuses connected to the Drug War that have filled our jails with African Americans. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and others may be beginning to turn some of that around.
The political spirit that imbues American Hustle is very human, pragmatic and mature. It accepts the idea that corruption is an unavoidable part of life that begins the moment the doc slaps us on the ass, and it does not end until we’re lowered into the grave. This is the fact of life that empowers the archetypal abusive prosecutor by giving him or her the power of selective enforcement. The rest is up to the brilliance of their conniving souls.
A key part of this pragmatic political spirit is forgiveness. Specifically, that includes developing workable, realistic re-entry programs for incarcerated inmates that overcomes stigmatization. We especially need to counter prosecutorial arrogance. As the nation faces rapidly increasing technological change and inevitable decline in the world, we don’t need any more vengeful prosecutors leading us anywhere.