American Hustle: Love Brings Truth in a World of Lies

Caper Movie based on a true story from 1978. A couple of con artists, Irving and Sydney, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, are caught and forced by the FBI to help them conduct stings on political and mafia powerbrokers in Jersey. Bradley Cooper is Richie, an ambitious FBI agent that gets embroiled with the two of them in a love triangle that messes with all of their heads and ours as we wonder every step of the way, who is conning who?

Okay, it’s hard not to like this film for me. The 1970s is just about the most perfect era when it comes to soundtracks. Although I didn’t hear the best ones like Led Zeppelin, Boston, ELO and the like, it was still a pleasure to swim in the glory of some of the lesser quality of the best rock and roll ever (and even some disco ☺). The writing is fabulous, the acting is brilliant, Jennifer Lawrence STEALS the movie with her funny annoying New Jersey housewife schtick. All the characters are sadly pathetic in the most fascinating of ways. David O. Russell is a fantastic director (having given us the brilliant Silver Linings Playbook).

It’s a pretty predictable theme of con movies that you can never believe what you see, but it works well because it remains a true revelation of human nature, the dark side of every one, even the apparently good people. As the con men repeat, “People believe what they want to believe,” we are introduced to a story that explores both this epistemological question and its moral ramifications on our lives. We see the result of the truth, also spoken by the hero, that people tell themselves lies to protect themselves from the truth and even from themselves.

It is a world of gray that Irving brings to the black and white self-righteousness of Richie the FBI man as he is introduced to the con world. We see Irving also involved in the sale of expensive art forgeries. But when Richie challenges that morality, Irving shows him a Rembrandt masterpiece at a museum and tells him it’s a forgery, but people don’t know. It’s forged so well that people cannot tell the difference, so what is the difference if they can’t tell? How is anyone hurt?

This is a movie lays out a world of morally gray life at every angle. We see Irving fall in deep love with Sydney only to discover that Irving is living a double life because he is unhappily married. But no one in this movie is all bad or all good. But no one is entirely honest either. The FBI agent Richie seeks justice, but he is overly ambitious and flawed with a violent temper that hurts others in his quest for truth and justice. He also has his sexual weakness as well, but he ain’t a corrupt lawmen. No one is fully corrupt in this film except the mob. Even the mayor Carmine, played by Jeremy Renner, that is getting stung for playing loose with the law is depicted as someone who is not intent on criminal deeds, but rather a man who breaks a few rules to help the people of his beloved city. He is a hero of the working man. These are all people who seek to navigate through a grey world without moral absolutes, because as Rosalyn says, “Sometimes, all you have in life is F*ed up poisonous choices.”

I think there is also a powerful underlying theme that love brings honesty and truth into our lives. For all three leads, when they finally and truly fall in love in the story or experience a genuine relationship of honesty giving from another human being, they shed elements of their dishonesty and seek to be known. We see each person respond to their friend or lover by coming clean, and then facing the pain of the consequences of their betrayal and coming clean. It is all quite redemptive, that is: love redeems our flaws with the clarity of black and white truth in a morally compromised world of grays.

The weakness of the story for me was in the criminal as hero storyline. Look, I don’t have a problem with heroes being flawed and all that. Of course, we’re all tainted. But I just don’t like movies that get the audience to root for a criminal to get away with a crime. Unless…

SPOILER: In this case, the con men ultimately con the FBI. And I don’t have a real problem with that – if they were conning corruption. The problem is that in this movie, the FBI guy was flawed, but not corrupt. If he was corrupt I would have more sympathy for the protagonists, but as it stands in this story, the FBI was just not as experienced. He was incompetent but not corrupt. His naïve machinations trying to capture the mob places our protagonists in jeopardy, so they get out of it by protecting the mob boss from their sting (who would kill them all when he found out) and blackmailing the FBI to let them go.

It all ends up fine in the end with our heroes returning money to the FBI and going clean in their lives. Without THAT ending, I would have hated the movie. Because getting away with a crime is not justice, no matter how much we sympathize with a hero. But as it stands, the theme is a powerful truth with a slight flaw: Love redeems lies and brings honesty, but the ends justifies the means.

Here is my cultural concern: If we tell stories that justify to people that they can disregard law when they think government is incompetent, then we cannot complain when we have a society of people that disregard law when they think it is incompetent (which it virtually always is). We build the very anti-authority into citizenry that we then complain about when we have such blatant criminal disregard for law like tax evasion, knockout games and flash mobs and a police that can no longer stop the riots and crime that happen around the country by radical activists in their protests. Or the absurd increase in shooting sprees because such criminals know the law has its hands tied and they will become heroes as antiheros in the media.

I don’t believe this is the intent of the filmmakers, but I do think it can have that effect on the audience values if we are not careful.