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Sleaze in the cinema: American Hustle and moral ambiguity

David O. Russell’s American Hustle reminds viewers that even if one’s objective is well-intentioned — to do a person a “favor” or bring business to a flailing city — corruption as the means is the least productive option.

Essentially, Russell is interested in showing the slippery moral grounds of using hustlers to catch hustlers. This is what the Abscam affair was about and on which the movie is (loosely) based.

It’s a 1970s-era film with low necklines and big hair involving a criminal investigation and over-eager FBI using a swindler to ensnare public officials.

The real and movie version of the Abscam sting operation involved two supposed “Arab sheiks” (FBI agents) who pose as businessmen eager to invest in Atlantic City’s budding casino industry. They also appear willing to bribe officials to get operating licenses.

Everyone in the movie version of the scam has a reason to be involved, and the film does a great job in showing how decent each one of them could have been — had they not gone down the road of corruption.

Helping the FBI is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who owns several dry cleaners in New York City — oh, and sells forged and stolen art work on the side. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) is his girlfriend/mistress who desperately wants to make something of her life and escape her past.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) works for the FBI and is as under-cautious about proper protocol as he is high-strung. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is the mayor of Camden who wants to build casinos to help his constituents find jobs, so he allows himself to be bribed, accepting money over drinks and dinners.

You feel sorry for those doing the duping and those getting duped — until you realize that by taking the low road into corruption, no person, family or public citizenry has benefited. 

The acting is superb in this film, particularly Christian Bale and Amy Adams. And you have to see the serious pompadour that Renner sports in it.

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Julie DiMauro is the executive editor of the FCPA Blog and can be reached here.

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