Making up in timeliness what it may be missing in pizzazz, “American Casino,” Leslie and Andrew Cockburn’s searing expose of the subprime mortgage crisis matches Wall Street’s numbers and graphics to the flesh-and-blood individuals whose lives have been devastated by the deliberate machinations of bankers and traders. The filmmakers’ metaphor of the housing market as a casino, with hard-working people’s homes used as chips, although apt, may lack the visual and visceral excitement necessary to propel the pic into theaters, though its message certainly rings strongly enough to impact home screens.
Through interviews with stockbrokers, lawyers and financial whizzes of various persuasions (many of their faces in shadow as they spill the beans on themselves and colleagues), the filmmakers explode the myth of the irresponsible home buyer, showing how banks and/or real-estate brokers, who profited from each mortgage, routinely changed lendees’ income figures on applications to match minimum mortgage standards. The banks could do this with impunity, since they immediately passed the risk on by selling off the mortgages.
Lendees, on the other hand, were given deflated figures reflecting their payments, the true cost of the mortgage only revealed at closing in huge documents they were allowed almost no time to process before signing. Minorities in particular were targeted; the filmmakers include an apt clip of President George W. Bush smugly extolling his extension of home ownership to poor families.
The experts chosen by the Cockburns, though hardly geniuses at translating the fine points of the meltdown into layman’s terms, convey the gist sufficiently to paint a damning portrait of the financial industry in the face of trillion-dollar bailouts to the very institutions that caused the collapse.
On the other side of the ledger, the filmmakers introduce three personable minority homeowners — a teacher, a clergywoman and a medical staffer — who personalize the destabilization and personal cost of such blatant disregard for human rights and dignity, as the camera pans past rows of boarded-up buildings in now-desolate Baltimore neighborhoods. Collateral damage can be just as costly: State officials in California demonstrate how swimming pools behind foreclosed houses become breeding grounds for West Nile mosquitoes and all manner of snakes, vermin and wriggling larvae.
The pic never completely escapes a smallscreen feel, however cogent the material; nor do the Cockburns, vets of numerous combat and issue docus, visually expand their gambling metaphor to encompass the widening rift between rich and poor, towering corporate skyscrapers vs. deserted row houses.