'American Hustle' Is Better Than the Real Story
"American Hustle," which may be the best two hours you'll spend at the movies, sets the stage with its opening: "Some of this actually happened."
The film is loosely based on the 1980 Abscam scandal, which resulted in the conviction of a U.S. senator and six members of Congress. "American Hustle" is engagingly brilliant; the scandal, and the actions of the government back then, was disturbing.
As an avid, if thoroughly amateur, movie buff, my bet is that "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" are the leading candidates for the Academy Awards. Several of the actors in "American Hustle" should be near-locks for awards; their performances were off the charts.
The movie tells the story of the con man (named Irving Rosenfeld in the movie, Melvin Weinberg in real life), who was a central figure in Abscam, and some of the operation's zealous federal agents. "American Hustle" depicts the pathology and the complexities of some of these figures, including a bribe-taking mayor who cares passionately about his constituents. This sounds incongruous; it isn't.
Abscam, however, was a travesty, a case of prosecutorial abuse. Some of the guys caught by the operation were bad; that doesn't excuse entrapment. Federal officials, working with the con man, devised a scheme in which a fake Arab sheik would spread financial largess in return for favors from politicians.
The operation was created by the government; it wasn't a sting aimed at exposing a sleazy ongoing deal; it was invented. Moreover, if the politician resisted, there were added inducements. The convictions were upheld by the courts, despite some reservations. Looking back at Abscam three decades later, this wasn't a corruption-discouraging prosecution. It was a scam run by the federal government.
To be sure, there were delicious moments in real life. Richard Kelly, a representative from Florida, was caught on tape stuffing thousands of dollars of bribes into his coat pockets and asking, "Does it show?" He later explained that he took the money because he was conducting his own investigation.
There is a great line in the movie from the con man: "When you are offered a favor or money, take the favor, not the money. Jesus said that, didn't he?" Not sure that measures up, however, to the actual observation -- captured on tape -- of Pennsylvania Representative Ozzie Myers: "Money talks and bullshit walks."
(An aside about Ozzie, who was sent to the slammer: He was an accidental congressman, appointed by the Philadelphia Democratic machine when the incumbent, Bill Barrett, died two weeks before the 1976 primary election. During those two weeks, I interviewed the Democratic boss of South Philadelphia, Henry J. Cianfrani, about the presidential primary and casually asked if he was worried about the House contest. "No," he quickly replied. "There'll be a big nostalgia vote for Bill." Barrett got 75 percent of the vote.)
Myers wasn't an admirable public servant; a few of those caught in Abscam were.
Some reforms were enacted after these prosecutions, but these fake scams still are employed today in terrorism and drug cases. And the $75,000 in Abscam bribes seem like chump change compared with the legal bribes that politicians now take every day.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)