American Casino” will do for banks what “Food, Inc.” did for supermarkets. The documentary is a comprehensive portrait of the sub-prime meltdown and how it affected lives on different levels. Although I had trouble understanding some of the film’s “financial speak,” “American Casino” is thought provoking, educational and a real sociological portrait of the times in which we live.
In topics ranging from state and federal deregulations, no-income verification loans, falsified loan applications, sky-rocketing adjustable rate mortgages, huge government bail outs, people losing their homes, an influx of West Nile Virus, rodents and mosquitoes, “American Casino” shows the sub-prime meltdown from many points of view. It intelligently uses testimonies and interviews from the financial “powers that be” (including former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan), brokers, financial reporters and those who knew in advance knew that sub-prime loans were going to be a fiasco. There are also interviews with people about to lose their homes due to mortgage payments that jumped unexpectedly, in one case from $800.00 to $2,000.00 a month. We meet an investor who bet big against Wall Street, gambling that people were going to default on their sub-prime loans, and made 500 million dollars, so far, doing so. Wall Street, unregulated, was given the right to shoot itself in both feet, a right of which it took full advantage. In California frustrated, defaulting homeowners spitefully dumped debris into their lost homes’ swimming pools resulting in an increase of the mosquito population, the arrival of West Nile Virus plus virus carrying rodents. In some situations crystal meth factories and marijuana growers set up in the abandoned homes. As a result, the real estate values of the affected neighborhoods were driven way down. How were these people and neighborhoods helped? The U.S. government spent 12 trillion dollars bailing out Wall Street. You could not write a spoof this outrageous…yet it is all true.
All of these elements carry the seeds of dark humor and the filmmakers seem to want to take advantage of this but unfortunately they do not follow through in this regard. For example the analogy of sub-prime loans being like a casino (hence the film’s title) is a good one. It is brought up at the film’s start but then abandoned when it should have been expanded and used throughout. Maybe there could have been a sardonic line about how in this casino the players lose to the house, with “house” having a double meaning since so many players in this sub-prime “casino” did lose their homes. In addition the filmmakers use songs that comment appropriately on and create counterpoints to the dire situations depicted, but again, this needed to be pushed and further developed. Someone like Michael Moore, who specializes in stories about people being disenfranchised and who uses humor very effectively to make his points, given this subject matter, could have hit it out of the park. The situations depicted, some described earlier, are tailor made for gallows humor.
On the “plus” side though “American Casino” is an eye opening, heart rending look at how greed, irresponsibility, amazingly bad judgment and a complete lack of understanding that everything is connected brought our economy to where it is now.
“American Casino” will play at Film Forum September 2 – 15.
“American Casino” director Leslie Cockburn, 2009,
Argot Pictures, 89 minutes