A movie based on real events is under no obligation to adhere to the truth of those events. More often than not, little more than the basic premise of a “based on a true story” film is factual in nature. There might be a few real details sprinkled in, whatever the writer thought was interesting enough to include. In most cases, the ideas or themes sparked by a true story are what filmmakers will focus on. How things actually happened are left by the wayside.
American Hustle winks to this, opening with the disclaimer that “some of this really happened.” I would not look to this movie to learn the facts about Abscam, the FBI sting operation that it dramatizes. But sometimes the truth of a case is so much more interesting than what an adaptation tries to bring to it, to the point where investigating that truth on your own might be a better prospect than trying to engage the fiction.
That’s what I keep coming to with American Hustle. The movie is perfectly okay but nothing special. It’s about nothing, despite pretending to be about greed and deception and America or whatever. It’s full of overacting and empty stylistic ventures. It’s fluff that was entertaining enough to woo the stodgy old white people of the Academy. But if you want something that’s both intriguing and lets you learn about Abscam, you can go straight to the source.
Abscam was run from 1978 to 1980. The FBI concocted the scheme in conjunction with Mel Weinberg, a skilled con artist whose cooperation they had enlisted in return for getting him out of a three-year prison sentence for his flimflamming. Using the front of a fictional Arab company looking to invest its millions of dollars, Weinberg and undercover FBI agents would approach members of the U.S. congress and offer them bribes. Ultimately, one Senator, six members of the House of Representatives, four members of the Philadelphia City Council, an INS inspector and the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, were all convicted of bribery and conspiracy as a result of the scam.
The operation remains controversial to this day. Opinions are divided between those who notice that it was blatant entrapment and those who somehow do not. For a while, Abscam was a pop culture punchline of sorts, but it faded with time. But in 2006, discussion was briefly revived after The American Spectator published the full video of one of the attempted stings. While attention died down again until American Hustle’s release drew Abscam back into the spotlight, the video is still available to view:
On January 7th, 1980, Weinberg and FBI agent Anthony Amoroso met with Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, as well as attorney/middleman Howard Criden. This tape documents their meeting, which was a little less than 50 minutes long. Murtha would end up avoiding indictment or prosecution. Though he said he’d consider taking money from “Abdul Enterprises” after working with them, and pointed them towards businesses in his district in which they could potentially invest, he declined the bribe itself. His district continually reelected him until his death in 2010.
This video is far more fascinating to me than anything in American Hustle. Director David O. Russell and his crew took at least some inspiration from materials like this in making the film. In one scene, Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent character performs the same on-the-record informational exposition as agent Amoroso does at the beginning of the tape. But there’s something here that isn’t in the fictionalization: the true essence of a con. While the meetings with politicians generally last no more than a few minutes in American Hustle, seeing how they worked in full lets you appreciate how the deception worked.
Weinberg and Amoroso open with general shit-shooting about the state of D.C., then use that to open up for discussion the conditions of Murtha’s own district. Murtha listens to the pitch, then expresses his reticence at taking part. Amoroso and Weinberg butter him up more, trying to reel him in. The actual bribe doesn’t happen until after more than a half hour.
Watching it, I was reminded far more of The Wolf of Wall Street than I was of American Hustle. In that film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort elaborates on the finer points of coaxing an otherwise intelligent person into trusting you enough to partake in something objectively stupid. Belfort might not approve of Amoroso’s performance here. I’m not well-versed in the art of the scam, but he comes on a bit too blatantly when the time comes to offer the money. You can watch and judge for yourself how convincing he is.
To me, the best part comes after Murtha leaves, and Amoroso and Weinberg argue over whose fault their failure was. It’s slightly disconcerting to see a federal agent upset that he wasn’t able to successfully bribe an elected official. The bickering and blame-shifting is what American Hustle comes closest to capturing well. Otherwise, one would be saving himself a lot of time and hysterical drama by watching this tape and doing further research. The movie simply doesn’t do this story justice.