Renowned liberal journalist Max Lerner once said, “History is written by the survivors.” In this spirit, American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s fictionalized version of the Abscam congressional scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s, is itself a cinematic hustle. Indeed, it’s a fitting coincidence that the title of screenwriter Eric Warren Singer’s original spec script was American Bullshit.
Starting in 1978, two New York-based FBI agents named John Good and Tony Amoroso launched Abscam in order to root out political corruption. They relied on the assistance of Mel Weinberg, a con man and FBI informant, and an ersatz Arab sheik (actually an undercover FBI agent). The operation eventually led to 19 convictions, including seven members of Congress. It also garnered criticism over the bureau’s tactics and, notably, the duplicity of Weinberg and his coterie of cohorts, including his wife and mistress.
Russell’s rewrite of Singer’s screenplay changes the real-life participants to fictionalized characters and conflates the story into a zany black comedy. With Weinberg still alive and living in Florida, and both Good and Amoroso consulting on the new film, it’s not coincidental that Weinberg is recast as Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a brilliant, slovenly scalawag who loves his mistress, Sydney (Amy Adams), and his adopted son, harbors a heart of gold beneath his disreputable doings and is harried by his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a gorgeous dingbat and floozy.
Yet creative license and one-sided storytelling has always been the province of cinema, from Nanook of the North to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino. Indeed, the framework of Russell’s American Hustlecompeting narrations from colorful characters; elaborate Steadicam sequences; an eclectic vintage soundtrack; a darkly comedic depiction of the criminal underworldis an unabashed, borderline shameless Scorsese homage. (Indeed, a Raging Bull-style intro and an uncredited appearance by a famous Scorsese regular drives home the emulation.)
Still, there are far worse auteurs to ape, and the notoriously tempestuous Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings) is an accomplished filmmaker. Indeed, the nuances and non sequiturs in a Russell script fly at the audience with the speed, dexterity and unpredictability of a technically proficient pugilist.
And according to published reports, Russell’s actors feel similarly bludgeoned. But an uncanny symbiosis exists between Russell and his adroit cast, particularly Bale, Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. Only the otherwise talented Lawrence is miscast as Rosalyn, a streetwise yet world-weary woman whose backstory is unsuited to a 23-year-old ingenue.
The marriage between director, script and cast generates a jaunty glimpse at the historical nexus between Watergate and the greed decade of the 1980s. Cops and prosecutors longingly hope to leverage the specter of government corruption (real or otherwise) for professional advancement.
Russell’s haze of verbosity sometimes stunts the narrative progression, and he untangles the complex relationships in overly tidy fashion. On the other hand, maybe this is the history the film wants to tell, and the hustle at the center of American Hustle is just a grift that’s still being played today. After all, as Irv Rosenfeld conspicuously points out, “People believe what they want to believe.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “American legends.”