Newbie filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, the director/producer/writer and producer/writer, respectively, behind the doc American Casino—which attempts to uncover the heart of darkness lurking inside the subprime mortgage meltdown that’s made “foreclosure” a household word—have been in-the-trenches journalists for nearly three decades. The husband and wife team have resumes boasting investigative reporting for the likes of Frontline and 60 Minutes, and it shows. I don’t mean that as a compliment. For while interviewing dictators and covert ops officers may make for great TV programming it does nothing to prepare one for the story sustainability required in long-form filmmaking.
The Cockburns take a scattershot approach to their subject, talking to anyone and everyone touched by the financial fiasco, from bland suit financial reporter Mark Pittman to “The Man in Shadow,” a Bear Sterns specialist who, when asked who was buying some of the nonsensical securities he was hawking, answers “Idiots.” (Why the filmmakers chose to cut directly thereafter to a shot of singing church congregants in a black community where foreclosure is rampant is a mystery only they can explain.)
Then there’s good guy Denzel Mitchell, a Baltimore social studies teacher who, we’re told via title card, filed for bankruptcy the morning of the interview. He’s trotted out to add a human element to the overabundant images of stock tickers and computer screens. Pittman refers to Mitchell as an innocent “chip” in Wall Street’s casino, but the term could just as easily have been applied to his role in The Cockburns’ film. Who wouldn’t root for a public high school teacher and father that gardens and composts in his backyard over the big bad bulls of Wall Street who literally hide in the shadows? American Casino is not only predictable in its “cut to Baltimore’s foreclosed homes then cue hip-hop” approach. It’s also about as nuanced as the stark red and black of a roulette wheel.
Besides, a roulette wheel is certainly more cinematic and more thrilling to watch. From shots of talking heads sitting in offices (often pointing out obscure numbers on their PCs), to the use of title cards, to footage of senators asking the usual questions at hearings, American Casino would seem more suited to print than to a visual medium like film. (Indeed, the information presented is often so dense and detailed that it practically begs for the slow-moving meticulousness of print.) But then most of the information The Cockburns present, from the banks’ targeting of minority communities to the current Treasury Secretary’s ties to Goldman Sachs, has already been exposed exhaustively in magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention in TV news magazines. The film isn’t telling us anything new and groundbreaking as did Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which also happened to include a cast of engaging, larger-than-life characters seemingly made for the big screen.
Not incidentally, that film was based on a book by Enron’s own screenwriters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, which gave the director a strong cohesive storyline to focus on and to sink his teeth deep into. In contrast the American Casino team appears to be taking small bites of whatever comes their way, assuming that simply showing greed, hubris and its consequences is enough to warrant a feature film. (Though the weird choice to interview some random guy from the Northwest Mosquito Vector Control District, who expounds on West Nile virus, meth labs and marijuana farms, has the makings of an episode of Dirty Jobs.) In fact, it’s almost a full hour before the filmmakers interview the woman who should have been their main character: Patricia McNair, an elegant black grandma and mental health professional in a battle to keep her home.
She’s the only interviewee to address the elephant in the room alluded to by another Baltimorean who claims to have lost everything to foreclosure, including her very “identity.” Why on earth would so many people stake their very souls on a piece of property? Isn’t this the mentality that got us into this mess in the first place, regardless of race or class? Isn’t American homeownership as a symbol of an individual’s worth the real con? McNair thoughtfully addresses the global complexity of the situation she’s found herself in, and is able to connect her plight to, as she says, some “village in Denmark.” In other words, she sees the bigger picture. Now if only someone had thought to stick McNair behind the lens.