An international flight finally gave me the opportunity to watch American Hustle. Make no mistake: This film is absolutely brilliant, and for those of us in the anti-corruption space, profoundly challenging.
I approached it with the standard set of assumptions, informed in equal measure by the trailer, and the worldview that animates so much of our work: The con artists are sleazy and utterly unsympathetic while the enforcement official is idealistic and noble; the scam is shocking while the investigation is triumphant.
But no fairy tale is this, and like the movie’s opening scene, each of us is forced to take a long look in the mirror.
Irving, who wears the “somewhat elaborate” comb-over, is indeed foul-mouthed and conniving. But as his character unfolds, we see a young boy victimized by the corruption that surrounds him.
He grows up to ask, “Did you ever find a way to survive when you knew your choices were bad?” He learns to con, to play the game, to survive. But so too does he learn genuine love and loyalty, both to his adopted son and to Sydney, his lover and partner in crime. She is emotionally fragile and vulnerable, likely victimized as well by corruption the movie does not show. And so she confides, “my dream more than anything was to become anything other than who I was.”
These figures thus evoke, at the same time, sympathy and reprobation. Their characters, like the world around us, are complex and multi-layered, defying easy categories and simplistic worldviews.
Meanwhile, the FBI agent, Richie, starts off as we would expect: Animated by the memory of a grandmother who never told a lie, he seeks to make the world right. But so too does his complexity unfold: He too is vain and ambitious, disappointed by his lot in life and seeking to become someone else. Indeed, his hairstyle is no less contrived than Irving’s. His concealment — his fraud? — is less obvious and less offensive, but not less real.
And haven’t we all encountered Richies? The too-confident corporate officer, singing too loudly his own compliance praises; the pompous and self-righteous NGO activist, whose zeal is exceeded only by his conspicuous lack of nuance; the fiercely certain academician, whose pure ivory tower perspective is both above the world and utterly detached from it.
In this movie we’re often not sure who to believe, who’s true and who’s false. The black hats and the white hats can start to seem grey. So is it true in life. We find that Lance Armstrongs and Charles Keatings lurk all around us. We can never be sure who they are.
But what we can do is make sure we’re not one of them — make sure our tone is no more righteous than our motives truly warrant.
It seems to me that we in the anti-corruption community should be more attuned to human suffering, not less; our hearts should be softer, not more callous.
We should not lack resolution to make this world better, but nor should we lack the humility that stems from candid self-reflection.
Lest we look in the mirror one day and find that the comb-over is our own.
Andy Spalding is a senior editor of the FCPA Blog. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.