American Hustle: A Terrific Concept, Perfectly Done

I actually remember little of the Abscam scandal.  From 1978 to 1980, the FBI engaged in an investigation of public corruption, targeting elected officials, member of Congress and the Senate, as well as some local politicians.  Five members of the House of Representatives, one United States Senator, members of the Philadelphia city government, and one New Jersey state senator were convicted of bribery related charges.

It was quite a sting, with a small time con artist named Mel Weinberg working with the FBI, and an FBI agent (or perhaps agents, plural) portraying an Arabian sheikh with loads of money to spread around.  Most of those convicted were captured on video tape taking the bribes.

The new film “American Hustle”, which opened this week, is based on Abscam, but it is a “fictionalized” version of Abscam, not meant to be either a documentary or a fact based replaying of what happened.  As the movie starts, the following is flashed on the screen:  “Some of this actually happened”.

This means that there is no reason that the facts of Abscam need to be religiously followed, and sets “American Hustle” apart from many other films based on historical reality.  This would include the recent “Argo”, based on the rescue of six Americans from the besieged American embassy in Tehran, which purported to tell an historic story, but in fact wandered far from the facts without telling anyone.  Unfortunately, “Argo” represents the norm in historic film making.

The Abscam scheme was so odd.  Using a con man to con the targets/public officials? Creating a false wealthy Arab sheikh and having him pass around wads of cash?  Sounds like fodder for comedy, no?

That’s what the film makers thought, and so they took the basic plot of Abscam, taking the basic players (all of whom were given new names and identities) and building a story around them as comic and fantastic as the FBI scam itself.

There’s no Mel Weinberg, but there’s an Irving Rosenfeld.  Rosenfeld, about to be charged with various con-related illegal activities, is approached by an FBI agent anxious to use his skills as a con artist to catch much bigger fish.  But Rosenfeld is as much a bumbler as a con artist, and the FBI agent is far from perfection himself.  And Rosenfeld has a personal life as complicated with his personal life.  He has a wife and (an adopted) son.  He doesn’t really like his wife, but she knows too much for him to divorce her.  He has a girl friend, a loner from New Mexico, who seems to be his perfect partner in crime.  Of course, the FBI man falls for the girl friend, and she plays him along (for a while you don’t know who really likes whom, or who is really scamming whom), and Rosenfeld himself develops an actual friendship with one of the targets.  And then there’s the FBI employee-sheikh, whose name is Paco and does not speak Arabic, and the Florida gambling mob, which is to provide the primary financial backing for a fake development plan, is represented by Meyer Lansky’s old right hand man, who turns out to be no one other than Robert de Niro.

The plot and the humor could fall flat without the right directing and acting.  Director David O. Russell, who directed “Silver Linings Playbook” (which I thought one of last year’s best films), put this film together as smoothly as possible, keeping the scam moving forward using short flashbacks which were easy to comprehend and did not seem to impede the flow of the story line.  And you can’t say too much about the acting.  Christian Bale looking like some one else as Rosenfeld; Bradley Cooper as FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn, Amy Adams as his girlfriend (who herself had two identities – middle class American and upper class Brit), Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s frustrated FBI superintendent, and of course Robert de Niro as mobster victor Tellegio.

Who is the best actor?  Hard to make a choice.  Watching it, I thought it was probably Jennifer Lawrence, but thinking back…….they were all great.

The reviews are coming in very strong.  We will see what happens during award season.  In the meantime, if you see only one film this season, this should probably be the one.

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