Wall Street is put on notice for city streets full of foreclosed homes via an elaborate mock trial, in “Cleveland Versus Wall Street,” Jean-Stephane Bron’s fascinating if somewhat dry nonfiction experiment. The Swiss helmer stages a court date that never happened — though not for lack of trying — with real witnesses, lawyers and a real judge, and the pic gives as close an approximation of the real deal as possible, shedding some light on the complexity of the case along the way. Though docu lacks a cathartic ending, a smart Stateside distrib could turn this into a topical event movie.
In January 2008, a full eight months before Lehman Brothers went belly up, the mayor of the city of Cleveland filed a lawsuit against 21 major banks responsible for the subprime loans that caused a daunting row of foreclosures in Ohio’s second biggest city. Wall Street lawyers successfully blocked any attempts of going to court, which inspired Bron to stage a mock trial with many of the players involved and watch “the trial that could have been” unfold.
As in “Corn in Parliament,” Bron is still as interested in documenting procedure as the human stories behind it. He calls his method here a “trial through cinema,” with Josh Cohen, the Cleveland lawyer who filed the original suit, and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge Thomas J. Pokorny cast as themselves. The question put to the jury is whether the banks of Wall Street are liable for the damages suffered by the city of Cleveland, where the many foreclosures caused by subprime loans, especially on the East Side, caused others to move out and crime rates to go up.
Witnesses tell some heartwrenching true stories of evictions and foreclosures, and though Bron clearly sides with the underdog, his docu is not a simple David-and-Goliath story. Defense lawyer Keith Fisher, the “hired gun from out of town,” is a strong opponent for Cohen, while the people of Cleveland demonstrate the case in question (and the American legal system in general) is much more complex than a simple guilty or not guilty verdict.
But the films’s strong suit — namely, that it simply documents the trial as it runs its course — is also its greatest weakness, as the legal proceedings never reach the pitch of an edge-of-your-seat courtroom thriller, and viewers will have to connect some of the dots themselves. For the average Joe, a clear idea of what a subprime loan is only emerges toward the end, when former Lehman Brothers software whiz Michael Osinski takes the witness stand. Occasionally choppy editing suggests a lot more transpired during the trial than is shown here.
Bron, sometimes heard in voiceover in his native French, also splices in short sequences showing some of the people involved just outside the courtroom or in their homes or cars. Not all of this material is essential, and could be reduced or removed for a U.S. release.
One notable exception is the footage of Cleveland native Barbara Anderson, a fierce neighborhood activist whose indignant outrage is fueled by such passion it might have merited its own documentary.
Camera and sound work is workmanlike; version reviewed lacked complete end credits.