Saturday, August 29, 2009

Required Viewing: American Casino

I just saw a preview of the new documentary American Casino, which opens in New York in a few days, and I have to say that it totally blew me away. It's deft, sophisticated, and riveting--a really impressive piece of work.

To be frank, I almost expected to be either bored to tears or blasted with overgeneralizations and conspiracy theories. Instead, what I saw was a documentary that performs a real public service.

This was a considerable undertaking. The bailout and the housing crisis are extraordinarily complex, and the challenges facing a filmmaker must be daunting. Remember that we're talking not just about stuff that's easy to show on camera, like people being booted out of their homes, but the financial machinations that drove the nation to the brink of bankruptcy.

Sure, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn show people being kicked out of their homes, and gruesome stuff like rats decomposing in swimming pools, but they also showed the financial and political forces that led to the crisis, and the monstruous consequences of the bailout.

American Casino sets a high bar for Michael Moore's impending documentary and the other films that will follow.

With the help of Mark Pittman of Bloomberg, who has done some of the best work in the press on the financial crisis, they examine specific mortgage-backed instruments and trace one down to an individual homeowner being kicked out of his house. Their descriptions of mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps and other financial instruments, and how they all tie together into a noose around all our necks, are about the best I've seen.

Scenes of foreclosed homes and destroyed lives in Baltimore and Stockton, California, are harrowing. But to me, what was really impressive was how the Cockburns brought all that financial minutae to life. People need to understand what happened, and why it happened, and that's very tough to show on screen.

The Cockburns put the blame were it belongs: on Washington, which deregulated credit default swaps in a law pushed by Phil Gramm in December 2000, and which encouraged the sales of mortgages to people who couldn't afford them.

Gramm's key role in the crisis is rarely mentioned, so that was a particularly satisfying thing to see.

I'm looking forward to Moore's Capitalism, A Love Story and other documentaries that are in the pipeline, including one on Bear Stearns specifically. American Casino is the first to come on screen, and it bodes well for the rest of them.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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