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.
But it is not clear that Belfort was really like this, and anyone who committed the relentless frauds that Belfort did in this film would have been sent to prison for a good deal more than 22 months, as he was. In fact, Belfort worked for a bucket shop on Long Island and never was on Wall Street, other than as a rubbernecking tourist. In this film he is portrayed as frequently addressing a trading floor that would be, if it were real, five times as large as any in the world.
The eminent director Martin Scorsese cheapens his brand with this sort of frenzied indictment of the financial system. It looks like nothing so much as Hollywood calling the kettle black. Hollywood is a greater sinkhole of cynicism, debauchery, and intellectual and financial corruption than anything in or near Wall Street, whose leaders, though some of them have much to answer for as to judgment, are still relatively sober captains of finance who are severely embarrassed by sleazeballs like Belfort (not that anyone so egregious has popped up there since the Thirties).
But these are the bookends of America, a motion-picture industry that, with this film, has plumbed new depths of ear-shattering repetitions of torrents of four-letter words, and prolonged and incessant bouts of sexual explicitness and coked-out mindlessness, and a financial industry that adds little value to anything, even if it is not, in fact, infested with and run by crooks. This film has its entertaining moments, certainly, and several players, especially Jonah Hill, with his Christie-like obesity, large-rimmed spectacles with clear glass lenses, and phosphorescent teeth, turn in fine performances. But it is a freak show in a madhouse, trying to convey a false political and economic message. It isn’t really a good film at all; more a three-hour assault on the senses that is, in its annoying and garish way, a divertissement. If audiences really like it, it does reflect unflatteringly on public tastes, unlike American Hustle, which is not a noisy film and is frequently a witty one, and does bear some resemblance to documented facts.
Ironically, The Wolf of Wall Street does score a direct hit on one unintended but valid target: the American economy, which — having shed tens of millions of manufacturing jobs, even as the country imported 20 million unskilled peasants (mainly illegally), not to save manufacturing for America but rather to mow the lawns and roll the tennis courts of the rich (from Mitt Romney to Barbra Streisand) at beneath the minimum wage — has too many people who are talented and motivated and work hard, but produce no value added. Too much of the economy is just the velocity of money: transactions where nothing is done except move non-physical assets from pocket to pocket for a fee, fecklessly, compulsively, but for no societal or industrial purpose. It is more scientific and sociologically useful than the nation spending the money at casinos and racetracks, which are less skilled forms of speculation, but not much more value is created. As long as this sort of activity, staying well clear of the outrages of Jordan Belfort, is the fastest track to wealth for the largest number of the ambitious, it will be an overpopulated segment of economic life.
The answer is not Michelle Obama lectures on the virtues of social work, and not fiscal repression or the escalation of Attorney General Eric Holder’s well-advanced legal assault on the financial community. It is to let America be America: Accelerate energy self-sufficiency, bring in entitlement reform, become serious about debt and affordable health care, fiscally incentivize a resurrection of a balanced economy (especially manufacturing), and wrench the justice system out of the hands of the fascists and officious terrorists who are fairly portrayed in both of these films. Hollywood is beyond repair and will continue to be so until the country outgrows the great liberal death wish and ceases to get high on the cinematic destruction of America. We don’t have to bring back Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart, or even Ronald Reagan (apart from in the White House), but with this clinker, Scorsese may get close to satiating the public’s appetite for gratuitous vulgarity and debasement. Hollywood strangled taste decades ago, now it has almost killed imagination.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at email@example.com.