January 7, 2010

300 Words About: American Casino

I don't know about you, but I find it such a relief when I learn I'm not the only one who doesn't understand what appears to be a simple issue, in this case the mortgage crisis. When a financial analyst in American Casino compared the financial calculations behind this entire mess as operating in the 4th dimension, I thought, Yep, that sounds about right.

We had a minority of bankers and brokers who developed an esoteric financial language that no one else could understand, and a majority of Americans who regularly buy fast food with credit cards and throw away unopened bank and credit card statements informing them of interest rate hikes. The eventual result, of course, is this mortgage-backed recession we've found ourselves in over the past two years. American Casino, which began filming in early 2008, illustrates what went wrong and who was affected. As you can imagine, it's not a pretty picture.

If Michael Moore oversimplified the mortgage crisis in Capitalism: A Love Story, Leslie and Andrew Cockburn somewhat overcomplicate it here. Rather, I should say that this is not a 100 level course, and a fair amount of the lingo tossed around by analysts and whistleblowers went way over my head. Granted, I'm not currently a homeowner. But after watching American Casino I'm not sure if I want to become one. 

One of the film's greatest strengths is that you don't have to know what a credit default swap is to sympathize with many of the subjects shown here who are on the brink of foreclosure or eviction. We meet a Baltimore pastor who is homeless after being thrown out of her childhood home due to late payments on a $28,000 refinance loan that she was encouraged to take out. We meet a professor who teaches social justice try to make sense of the number of people being forced into bankruptcy, including himself. And beyond the individuals in American Casino, we see entire communities ravaged by foreclosures. In the city it translates to squatters and urban decay; in the suburbs it translates to vacant subdivisions and festering swimming pools harboring diseases like West Nile Virus.

As is often the case with broad subject documentaries, (including Capitalism) the focus of the film becomes a moving target. Such is the case here, but one message is delivered loud and clear from American Casino: while the majority of people were playing fair, some people were counting cards - and they got away with it.

American Casino is now available on DVD and is still playing in very limited theatrical release.


  1. card game for two to four players in which cards on the table are matched by cards in the hand.Now is it a modern way of entertainment.

  2. Huh. Continually baffled by the type of spam comments that arrive here sometimes.

    On the subject of entertainment, though, I wonder if it's worth considering that the rise of online gambling and poker on TV could have conditioned American culture to treat all financial transactions, including mortgage payments, as if they were playing in a casino.


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