American Hustle


If you want to understand credit and its abuses, you have to delve into the human heart, in all its weakness and strength, and literature and film are powerful ways to do so.  In this observation, I join the growing backlash (see, for example, here and here) against the philistine notion that the humanities are a waste of time.  Literature and history can teach us at least as much as the social sciences and often are better written and more insightful about the nuances of our psyches.

Arguably the most fertile period of American cultural production was the mid-19th century, when  Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s first professional authors, examined closely the techniques of scamming, quickly joined by other literary greats such as Herman Melville and Mark Twain.  See here for my paper on this subject. Poe was also the first to link scammers’ motivations to the spirit of Wall Street.  Defining a scammer as working on a small scale, Poe also connected the dots to grand predators: “Should he ever be tempted into magnificent speculation, he then, at once, loses his distinctive features, and becomes what we term ‘financier.’”  See here for source.

David O. Russell provides a fresh take on this point in a must-see new movie—just in time for the holidays.  American Hustle’s dark wit speaks to the loss of any remaining American innocence in the lingering wake of the Great Bubble and Pop.

Set in the seedy late 1970s, the film lushly renders the world of runaway inflation, terrible clothes, shaggy hair (and comb-overs), disco fever, rising divorce rates, and rundown real estate for which the decade is remembered.   But it tells a timeless tale of raw ambition for riches and status turning every human interaction into a con.

 Two scamming lovebirds feel they have it made running a phony outer-borough loan brokerage, when into their lives comes an FBI agent on the make. Catching them at their game, the agent forces the pair to scale up their level of ambition to entrap some politicians taking bribes from an “Arab sheik” seeking to develop Atlantic City’s casinos (story loosely based on the Abscam scandal). Locked in interdependent scams, this odd triangle let the big fry get away (a key point) but they lay bare the American id of 2006, or 1978, or perhaps even 1843, when Poe first delved into the mechanisms of tricks and traps and the human weaknesses that scammers love to exploit.   Merry Christmas, and Happy 2014!