Deconstructing the boom and bust
The first name of a famous director named “Michael’’ comes to mind during the opening of “American Casino,’’ a documentary about the causes and consequences of last fall’s financial meltdown. But it’s Michael Mann, not Michael Moore. That’s how sleek and efficient Leslie Cockburn’s film starts out, with its shots of big office buildings, financial figures scrolling along computer screens, and talking heads. It’s a relief to see a minimum of huffing and puffing on such a hot-button subject.
The tone heats up over the course of the next hour or so. By then the soundtrack has Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.’’ Also by then we’ve seen how Wall Street recklessness has affected several people in Baltimore who’ve lost their homes or are on the verge of foreclosure. Heavy-handedness doesn’t seem quite so heavy-handed.
Cockburn, who wrote “American Casino’’ with her husband and frequent collaborator, Andrew, is an award-winning veteran of such television news programs as “Frontline’’ and “60 Minutes.’’ Much of the final two-thirds of the documentary can have a TV newsmagazine feel: solidly presented, but not shaped to a larger end. As self-righteousness sets in, however justified, so does a certain artistic slackness.
The documentary’s title is meant quite literally. “American Casino’’ is not just a metaphor - and it’s certainly not hyperbole. The various techniques that banks and mortgage firms employed would get a three-card monte dealer hauled in by the cops - except that three-card monte dealers don’t wear expensive suits or use terms like “credit default swaps.’’
“American Casino’’ includes news footage of Alan Greenspan being grilled by Congress and former US Senator Phil Gramm making his comment about America as “a nation of whiners.’’ But most of the movie consists either of interviews or on-the-street reporting. The talking heads include former financial executives, former government regulators, and financial journalists. None is famous, but that makes it easier to attend to what each is saying.
A particularly compelling interviewee is Washington, D.C., civil rights lawyer John Relman, who discusses the practice of reverse red-lining minority neighborhoods. That is, banks and mortgage companies would target such areas to push mortgages.
The effects of that targeting are shown through the experience of several individuals. A schoolteacher walks us through his foreclosed home. A minister who’s been reduced to living in a friend’s car says, “I just took it on faith it was going to be OK.’’ We watch a city housing inspector oversee the boarding up of a house.
The documentary concludes in California, with visits to Stockton and Riverside County, outside Los Angeles. In a gruesomely effective touch, we see pesticide workers deal with an increasingly common public-health hazard: a fetid swimming pool at a foreclosed house. Unlike the idea of Wall Street as casino, that is a metaphor.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.