American Hustle (2013) – dir. David O Russell

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Atlantic City after Hurricane Sandy 2013

Seventies fashion gets a lot of stick nowadays, as does the hair that went with it, but films with stories from the 70s are definitely in vogue at the moment (with Behind the Candelabra and Lovelace being two that come to mind). To the ensemble cast of actors that are up for a number of awards in American Hustle you could also add the clothes and even the music.

The Mob, Politicians and Corruption appear so often in the same sentence when discussing US society that it’s not a surprise that they come together here – with the FBI added for good measure.

Like all good stories of this type the surreal nature of the plot and unfolding of the story is made even more so by the fact that it is ‘based on a true story’. In 1978 the FBI hired/forced to cooperate a convicted con man in what became known as Abscam. This was an undercover ‘sting’ which set out to entrap, and succeeded in doing so, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey as well as an US Senator and a handful of other top politicians. Although the FBI was successful in both the film and in actuality this operation ended up being criticised for its tactics and the rules of the game, for them, were changed. Whether that was rightful indignation against entrapment or the politicians just trying to make things more secure for themselves in the future is another matter.

Camden was in the 1970s, and by all accounts remains to this day, one of the poorest inner city districts on the east coast. In real life Angelo Errichetti, the Democratic mayor from 1973-1981, was a bit of a populist and seemed to have a lot of support in his efforts to try to revive the district and bring down the high unemployment rate. The trouble starts when he considers that making gambling legal in Atlantic City (at that time the run down, once popular tourist resort on the coast) would lead to inward investment, regeneration of the area and employment opportunities.

Unfortunately for both the fictional and the real mayor in the US gambling means big money means the Mafia WILL have a share, the only question is ‘how much’. By bringing the gangsters into the affair he brings about his own downfall. When the FBI (when it’s not chasing Reds or getting involved in conspiracies to kill a president) smells the chance of a high-profile arrest of a top Mafioso they’re like a dog with a bone and won’t let go.

It’s interesting what goes around comes around.

This part of New Jersey was once a thriving commercial and industrial area when capitalism needed US workers. Through lack of investment and better opportunities elsewhere where labour was cheaper, in Latin America or Asia (a similar situation was developing at the same time in the UK) once so-called secure jobs just evaporated, almost overnight, leaving in its wake decline, deprivation and despair.

In such circumstances people will clutch at anything, even if the best that can be offered is working as a croupier in a casino – in Atlantic City that would mean working to put more money into the hands of the Mafia. So one set of gangsters is replaced by another, perhaps more honest, one.

Because of the FBI sting in the 70s the plan to develop the boardwalk in Camden didn’t come to fruition. Although a number of politicians were caught up in it (I won’t get into the discussion of whether they did what they did because they thought the best way to achieve what they had promised the voters rather than for personal gain – as far as I’m concerned all ‘democratically elected’ politicians are in it for something, whether it be financial gain or personal aggrandisement) none of the Mafia went down. I don’t know if it’s one of the true stories or whether it was put there for artistic effect but the mob boss threw a spanner in the works by showing a command of languages, even though he had been a cold-blooded assassin in the past. Fear of retribution also meant the Mafia were warned off. So the easy targets were caught but the real gangsters were allowed to go free due to incompetence.

For the people of Camden the debacle of the corruption case didn’t mean that national government looked on them favourably. They had gone through the disaster years of Nixon and Carter and they were about to face two terms of Reagan. If the national leaders didn’t come up with anything their future local ‘leaders’ didn’t turn out any better. Three out of the last 5 mayors of Camden have been convicted of corruption. Perhaps it’s something in the sea air?

I wonder how present day residents of Camden see the film? Even though in recent years the area has been developed there’s a stratification between the fortress like casinos and the ordinary people who live there, as was seen when Hurricane Sandy hit the resort last spring

The resort isn’t as sleazy as it was depicted in the 1980 film Atlantic City but it still doesn’t look any different from Blackpool with the sun – although I’m sure that during winter the Atlantic coast is a forbidding place. However, there are treats in store. February offers a Group Wedding Ceremony on the 14th (so get your booking in quick!). August provides the Grape Stomping Festival and there’s the Miss America Pageant in September. All year around you can ‘explore the world’s largest elephant’ or visit Bare Exposure with ‘over a 100 beautiful naked girls’ with a ‘buy one couch dance, get one free’ deal.

But Camden is still one of America’s poorest cities and suffers from all that accompanies such an economic situation. It has almost 5 times the violent crime rate of cities of a comparable size (giving it number one place in country) and two out every five residents live below the national poverty level. Rather than the situation getting better it seems that law changes in Philadelphia are starting to challenge Atlantic City’s monopoly on gambling so even that ‘boost’ to the local economy might be lost in the near future.

Such is the American Dream.