America at the Movies
A look at American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount Pictures)


Conrad Black

Last week, for the first time in at least 35 years, I went to a cinema and watched two full feature films with only a ten-minute break between them, a binge to challenge the mind and body in many ways, from resistance to sleep, to toleration of irritating acoustics, to the customary discomforts of prolonged sedentariness. Most of those stern features of the boot camp of addictive screen-watching were passed satisfactorily enough and the takeaway was what the two films said about the contemporary American scene — both American culture and American mores today. To the extent that the two films, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, were accurate, their message is disturbing, and, to the extent that they represent and satisfy public tastes, they are also disturbing. Both are prominent new releases and much is expected of both films at the Academy Awards. As straight entertainment, they were rarely soporific.

American Hustle, directed by David Russell, is a depiction of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, in which an FBI sting operation caught a number of congressmen, a senator, and some New Jersey municipal officials taking bribes from supposed Arabs. It is a well-paced, lively comedy featuring a Jewish scoundrel with a “complicated” comb-over and his engaging “English” upper-class girlfriend, who is in fact a sharper from Albuquerque (Amy Adams, who is as good in this role as she was as Meryl Streep’s understudy as a nun in Faith). It works as a comedy and is a good, diverting movie. It is impossible for the casual viewer to judge how accurate much of it is, especially the several love triangles that account for most of the drama and provide most of the humor, and it is very amusing in many places. The aspects of the plot that are fairly clear are that it was a very shabby FBI sting operation and the motives of most of those convicted were to provide economic impetus for the distressed state of New Jersey, as Atlantic City sought to become a serious gambling center.

The comedy is excellent, but the unscrupulousness of the FBI, though obscured by all the farcical toings and froings of the fluid romantic arrangements, is the underlying message and is also clear, and is the only part of the film that we know is accurate: an unflattering picture of the Bureau’​s ethics and preoccupations. This impression is not much varied by the fact that the principal FBI figure in the case is lampooned as a vain and ludicrous Narcissus. The substantive message is that, instead of chasing after and apprehending serious crime figures (the principal one here is played by Robert De Niro with his usual flair and credibility), the Bureau is preoccupied with demonstrating that most people have their price, especially when they think they are benefiting their constituents and communities. None of the people convicted here, or, as far as is publicly known, in Abscam itself, sought a bribe; they accepted the bribes as incentives to get something objectively desirable accomplished for those who elected them. American Hustle is good entertainment, says nothing negative about public tastes, but reminds us of the fact that the FBI is often little preferable in ethical terms to those from whom its agents are supposedly protecting the country.

The Wolf of Wall Street also has many humorous moments, and also depicts the FBI and American prosecutors as authoritarian, unethical, and bumbling, but the pasting administered to the securities industry in this gonzo update of the 1987 film Wall Street would surpass the wildest ambitions of the most committed Marxist. The purpose of the entire industry is not wealth creation or any benefit to the client, but only the generation of fees and increased transactional activity. In 1987, Michael Douglas in the memorable role of Gordon Gekko at least promoted real companies, tried to generate wealth for his clients, approved the proverbial “greed” whoever was the carrier and slave of that ambition, and was not personally a degenerate living in a continuous narcotics- and alcohol-induced bacchanalian orgy. This is the destiny of Douglas’s successor, Leonardo DiCaprio, capably portraying Jordan Belfort in an allegedly true story.