By now, you may have heard about sub-prime mortgages, the housing market, and the global financial collapse. For those still scratching their heads, the simplified story goes something like this: until about 2008, financial titans amassed unprecedented amounts of wealth through a housing bubble fueled by too-good-to-be-true mortgage deals until the homeowners began defaulting en masse, causing a ripple effect through credit and lending markets that sent the system into a downward spiral. Or so I've heard. Journalist Leslie Cockburn, along with husband and co-writer Andrew Cockburn, is among the first filmmakers to tackle the subject in her feature documentary American Casino. Given Cockburn's left-leaning politics, it should come as no surprise who the film finds culpable in this mess: the Bushes, Greenspans, and Paulsens of the world. This is not to say that the film is utter propaganda though -- this would belie Cockburn's legitimate credentials.
The casino of the title is Wall Street, as Bloomberg financial writer Mark Pittman points out in the film's opening. Among the financial subjects who Cockburn interviews, Pittman seems by far the most informed and serves as a de facto Virgil through the financial inferno that the film examines in its first section. However, for anyone looking to come away with a better understanding of what actually happened, this portion might be a letdown, as the explanations offered by Pittman and former employees of firms such as Bear Stearns and Standard & Poor inevitably add to the confusion.
Perhaps this is why Cockburn shifts focus from the casino itself to the losers and winners. Fans of HBO's The Wire will appreciate the change of setting to urban Baltimore, a region hard hit by foreclosures. The subjects, however, are not the hustlers who inhabited the HBO series, but honest, hard-working people who found themselves (perhaps illegally) on the wrong end of a mortgage deal. It is in these subjects that the film switches from exposé to a form of poetry: a young schoolteacher sadly bemused at the parallels between the issues of social justice he discusses in the classroom and the foreclosure of his family's home; a reverend who spent her life helping the homeless suddenly finding herself among their ranks. Given the brashly political tone the film takes, this human element is a welcome injection, though there is an element of heavily implied outrage: Why is it that the government will bail out Wall Street but not its victims?
The film changes course yet again in its final section. While we might be accustomed to the devastation a housing crisis causes in the inner city, Cockburn is quick to point out that white suburban America is not immune to it. However, while the human suffering was the focus in the inner city, the unintended environmental effects are what seem to interest Cockburn most in suburbia's fall. In a post-apocalyptic retelling of John Cheever's The Swimmer, Cockburn here takes us on a journey of the fetid swimming pools and abandoned backyards that have become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, rodents, and poisonous snakes. It is here that Cockburn offers the film's one lasting image: a rotting, plastic action figure floating in its makeshift swamp.
Overall, though, these topic shifts are to the film's detriment. While the sections all dance around the same subject, the film feels more like pieces of a journalistic series strung together. The casino metaphor, which would be the film's logical thematic center, pretty much disappears after the first 30 minutes. Cockburn also lingers a bit too long on the plight of Baltimore, making the final section feel a bit rushed. The film does briefly reintroduce the casino idea in an interview with one of the few big winners from the housing collapse, real estate mogul Jeff Greene, who made a personal fortune by “betting” heavily on it. Greene seems as though he could have emerged as a potentially fascinating interview subject – a lopsided beneficiary of both systemic collapse and individuals' misfortunes. Even in the brief clips Cockburn presents, there seems to be a degree of tension between guilt and amorality. Had Cockburn spent more time delving into his world in the film's final section, she may have found her missing link.