One day, a documentary filmmaker will produce a full accounting of the atrocities perpetrated on the American economy in the 30-plus years since the Reagan administration deregulated the financial markets. American Casino (Table Rock Films), written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, is not that movie, but it will do just fine in the meantime. An admirably thorough survey of the effect of the mortgage crisis on a vertical slice of the population (wealthy bankers, middle-class homeowners, and those now reduced to sleeping in cars), American Casino nonetheless feels workmanlike at times, with the talking heads and dry exposition of an extended Frontline episode. It also has the disadvantage of timing: In the year and a half it took to make and release this film, we've read and heard so much about the financial crisis that even some of the movie's sharpest points are now familiar ground.
American Casino gets its schadenfreude out of the way up front. During the opening credits, the late Blossom Dearie sings "The Party's Over" as the camera swoops through the canyons of New York's Financial District, zeroing in at last on the Lehman Bros. building. In its jargon-filled but instructive first half-hour, the documentarytakes up euphemistic terms like "complex financial instruments"—remember last fall during the bailout negotiations, when every other sentence out of Henry Paulson's mouth seemed to contain the words complex financial instruments?—and lays out what they actually were: baldfaced scams in which, for example, banks submitted bundled subprime mortgages to credit ratings agencies, which then rubber-stamped the loans, collected a large fee, and handed them back to the bank, having run no financial analysis whatsoever. An internal e-mail at the ratings agency Standard & Poor's put it this way: "We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it." An honest bovine broker would have been preferable to these vultures, who, among themselves, were quite open about the havoc their greed was about to wreak; in another internal e-mail from late 2008, an S&P analyst writes, "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters." A former Bear Stearns executive addresses the camera anonymously, visible only in silhouette, his voice electronically distorted—the same treatment documentary filmmakers traditionally give to child molesters.
Just when you're getting ready to sharpen your scythe and head to Wall Street, the film abruptly cuts to the boarded-up row houses of Baltimore, where a young black schoolteacher and father of three, Denzel Mitchell, has just lost his home. Mitchell's story, and those of other minority homeowners who were hoodwinked into subprime mortgage deals, are heartbreaking enough as isolated anecdotes. But later in the film, when a financial reporter points out Mitchell's mortgage on a computer screen listing bundled Goldman-Sachs assets, the viewer gets a chilling sense of the scale of this transfer of wealth from bottom to top. As another financial talking head puts it, some infinitesimal percentage of Hank Paulson's $600 million worth of Goldman stock came directly from profit on Denzel Mitchell's subprime loan.
In its last third, the documentary goes somewhere completely unexpected and utterly fascinating. The ubiquity of foreclosed houses in places like Riverside County, Calif., has given rise to a whole new set of public health problems, including the threat of West Nile virus from the mosquitoes that breed in abandoned swimming pools. As the Cockburns interview exterminators and local police about the rats' nests and meth labs that tend to proliferate in foreclosed homes, the corruption metaphor is like something out of a Nathanael West novel.
It's tough to invest a documentary of this sort with visual interest: How long can you stare at a computer screen of financial tables or watch as the camera pans menacingly across a Wells Fargo bank sign? And some of the footage the Cockburns use is overly familiar, like Alan Greenspan's testimony before Congress about discovering a "flaw" in the free-market model he'd been using to run the economy for decades. But a 2004 clip of George Bush peddling a program to encourage home buying in minority communities—remember the "ownership society"?—now has a sinister new ring.
Slate V: How foreclosures breed mosquitoes