American Hustle, by David O. Russell (2013): Make-believe

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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american hustle

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American Hustle made me think about history. How close to the present can we venture, but still call it history? How faithful does it have to be to what went on? Is American Hustle a film about history? It certainly starts with an interesting disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”. The story of the ‘Abscam’ corruption scandal on which it is based is one of those stranger than fiction stories, and a lot of the characters and events in the film are based on reality (for a more detailed analysis of that, see here).

As a film, it lacks the manic urgency of David O. Russell’s previous Silver Linings Playbook, and the fact that he was personally invested in the latter’s main themes (depression, bipolar disorder) perhaps has something to do with it. American Hustle is smartly written and directed, wonderfully acted and very funny at times. But it falls far short of its hype, and the numerous adulating reviews are rather perplexing. It even managed to outshine on occasion the emotional impact and historical importance (again, history) of a film such as 12 Years a Slave, or the dazzling technical achievement (but nothing more) of Gravity.

One wonders inevitably about the pervasive influence of the myth of the American dream. Small time crook who makes it big, swindling the innocent (or dumb, take your pick) and ultimately getting away because of his/her charm and superior intellect or powers of deception (it appears to be roughly the same). It is a perverted image of individual achievement, made possible in a capitalist society – and as such, not that different from either The Great Gatsby or even The Wolf of Wall Street. Seeing the latter in close proximity with American Hustle, and having in mind the moral outrageous that the Scorsese film provoked in many circles, I was baffled: why weren’t we equally outraged with the characters in American Hustle? Because they seemed…nicer? Because the film was funny, but not in any offensive or extravagant way, as Wolf was? Because we were supposed to accept the platitude of its tagline (“everyone hustles to survive”) as a valid life philosophy?

Despite the qualms concerning the film’s moral compass, there is one – I believe unintended – unique quality to American Hustle. And that is precisely it’s relationship to history. Although the disclaimer seems like justification for the liberal portraying of events and characters on the screen and shifts the question of authenticity away from content, the film nevertheless remains bound to historical accuracy in a different way: it’s visual and material representation of history. And by history, I mean a precise era in the past, with all its trappings. I don’t think I have ever seen another film that takes historical reconstruction to this point of fetishism – this goes well beyond the need to transport the viewer in the period represented (as is true with any of the countless period films that continue to be produced year after year). American Hustle elevates the representation itself to the very essence of the film – the reconstruction is the subject matter. While viewing the film, one cannot shake the feeling that the clothes, the hair, the makeup (nail polish is probably the most essential clue to understanding Jennifer Lawrence’s character), the furniture, the light transfusing every scene, the sites, the houses, the clubs etc., are what it’s all about. Mark Kermode noted the film’s “air of deliberate superficiality”, but I would go so far as to say that American Hustle got caught in its own period reconstruction, much like Narcissus got caught in the reflection of his image in the pond. The film does not exactly drown, but also does not show us much more than this surface. That it manages to do so with the conviction that there isn’t really much else to history, is an impressive, if ambiguous, feat.

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