With more spark than a Frontline documentary and less pretense than whatever Michael Moore has cooking, American Casino is the best film so far to explain the US economic crisis, and the only one with an original hip-hop score about the collapse of the mortgage-backed securities market. The narrative jumps between WASPy former bankers who frankly describe greed and corruption on Wall Street to middle-class African Americans in Baltimore who lost their homes. The word "subprime" takes on repulsive connotations as the film shows how racial minorities were targeted for usurious loans. Indeed, American Casino recasts the Great Recession as a civil rights story.
The film's writers, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, have a long collaboration as muckraking husband and wife. SFR spoke to Andrew by phone as the couple sped down I-84 on their way to the film's Sept. 25 Santa Fe premier.
SFR: I didn't see the ending. Do we get out of this recession?
AC: [Laughs] No. we go to Riverside, Calif. with a guy who is in charge of mosquito control. As he very eloquently describes, with tens of thousands of foreclosed houses in the area, the first thing anyone does when they can't make the mortgage is switch off that pool pump. So the pools get stagnant and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which, as it so happens, are disease-bearing. He shows us a pile of subprime flyers—'100 percent financing, no money down'—and says, 'That's become a giant rat's nest.' It's a very post-apocalyptic scene.
If more people saw this movie, they might wonder why we're bailing Wall Streeters out instead of storming their mansions with pitchforks.
Well, we should be doing that. The $12 trillion [committed to the bailout] would've paid off everyone's mortgage.
The film's title gets at what kind of society we are. Your credit score is your value as a 'chip.'
Exactly. It gives you a sense of your value as a chip in the casino. It's a very profound thing that [Bloomberg News reporter] Mark Pittman says: 'When you're in the Street's casino, you've got to play by their rules.' People didn't know they were chips. It is like being in The Matrix.
The banker you interview who calls people who bought his product 'idiots': Why did you disguise him?
Believe me, it's very hard to get people to talk frankly about this. That's why no one else has done it, as far as I know.
Is that why Wall Street speaks in a language no one else understands? Because if you put it in plain language, it would be clear they were talking about theft?
Yes, or at least fraud. I must be kind and call it fraud.
Directed by Leslie Cockburn
With Ben Bernanke, Sheila Dixon, Phil Gramm, Henry Waxman and Henry Paulson