“American Casino” has no Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, or Al Gore. No lone protagonist sets out to lead and shape the viewer’s understanding of the subject matter. Instead, director Leslie Cockburn speaks only through others—financial experts, city officials, and an array of Baltimore residents—in order to explore and explain the causes and effects of the current financial crisis. Through its masterful compilation of interviews and news clips, the documentary deftly weaves the personal with the national and the human with the financial for a holistic and disturbing take on the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
Cockburn—a longtime investigative journalist and former Princeton professor—is no stranger to the compact and powerful exposé. While the subject matter of “American Casino” seems far removed from her many films about global atrocities in Asia, South America, and the Middle East, the impact is no less shocking. As the title indicates, Cockburn—along with her husband, Andrew, who co-wrote and co-produced the film—suggests that the deregulation of financial institutions turned Wall Street into a virtual casino, one that operates on stakes much higher than anything found on the Vegas strip. The film opens with the now familiar tale of unsupervised banking recklessness: banks steadily doled out an increasing number of subprime mortgages—loans made to consumers with bad credit. Many would then adjust the interest rates for select mortgages according to market fluctuations, demanding more and more payment from consumers unable to afford the escalating charges.
Beyond faulty economic theory and policy, the documentary also details how hundreds of billions of dollars clouded the judgments of banks, brokers, and insurance companies, encouraging the predatory processes that led to the economy’s ultimate collapse. While policy was made in Washington and the major financial players operated in New York City, American taxpayers bore the brunt of the downturn, losing their homes to foreclosure and repossession and being asked to bail out the institutions that devastated them in the first place.
The Cockburns’ most admirable accomplishment is in balancing the technical rigors of economic theory with focused, empathetic stories of struggle and pain. One such story belongs to Reverend Almalene “Emily” Wade, who took out the equity in her childhood home in order to make the renovations needed to accommodate an assisted-living center, but could not afford the monthly payments and so lost the residence. Standing in front of her former home, Wade speaks powerfully to the scope of her financial hardships. “You lose more than the home,” she explains. “You lose your identity, you lose your space, you lose your church, you lose your community, you lose your local friends...You lose everything.” Through juxtaposition of gritty financial details with tales of personal turmoil, the film renders the massive and technical complexity of the economic crisis real and palpable on an individual scale.
The Cockburns assemble a wide range of evidence, opinions, and information in piecing together the crisis from multiple angles. There is the former Wall Street employee who feels no responsibility, the government worker frustrated with having to deal with squatters on foreclosed property, and the membership of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center indignant that these lenders purposely offered their clients loans that they cannot afford. Despite a brisk pace and an ever-widening range of perspectives, the film’s various threads are often surprisingly connected beneath the surface, ensuring that the narrative never gets lost or jumbled despite its multitude of information.
However, because the Cockburns offer so many viewpoints, the film does not always provide enough sources when it comes to individual aspects of the financial crisis. For instance, when profiling one of the most controversial topics—financial companies like Wells Fargo allegedly targeting minority communities for subprime mortgages—the Cockburns rely on one unquestionably biased source: John Relman, a civil rights attorney involved in a lawsuit with Wells Fargo for minority targeting. Wells Fargo declined to comment and the film offers no rebuttal from anyone else, and the result feels a little one-sided.
“American Casino” accelerates with a systematic authority usually provided by a protagonist or a narrator. With this technique, the Cockburns outline how disturbingly far-reaching the consequences of the financial crisis—both direct and indirect—have become. High rates of foreclosure, repossession of property, and declarations of bankruptcy in minority communities lead to the increasing devastation of American neighborhoods, creating a thriving environment for crime and drugs. People then leave such neighborhoods in droves, draining the community’s equity and decreasing investors’ interest.
In mapping the wide and varied repercussions of the crisis, the film inevitably wanders at times. One of the most far-fetched segments comes from the assertion that as a result of economic hard times, the spike in the number of abandoned or unclean backyard pools has led to the dramatic rise of dangerous mosquitoes, rodents, and snakes. This facet of post-recession America, although argumentatively substantiated by Cockburn, does not have quite the same resonance as the film’s other angles. But despite its occasional flaws, “American Casino” is subtle in its delivery, serious in its examination, and undeniably illuminating in its exploration of the current economic situation and how it variously affects us.