Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review: Leslie Cockburn's "American Casino"

American Casino. 2009. Directed by Leslie Cockburn. Written and produced by Leslie Cockburn and Andrew Cockburn. Cinematography by Phil Geyelin, Gregory Andracke, Bill Cassara, Bob Goldsborough, and Sam Painter. Edited by Peter Eliscu. Music supervised by Susan Jacobs. Sound by Daniel Brooks, Tom Craca, Michael Karas, Erik Knox, Charlie Macarone, Lupe Mejia, David Mitlyng, Mark Wilson, and Everett Wong.

Just in time for the one year anniversary of the global economic collapse comes Leslie Cockburn's powerful and timely documentary American Casino, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum for a two-week run. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

The title of Leslie Cockburn’s nothing-if-not-timely documentary American Casino says it all, an apt description of the world created by the reckless Wall Street financiers who have brought the U.S. economy (as well as the rest of the world’s) to its present sorry state. Much like Charles Ferguson’s Iraq War documentary No End in Sight, Cockburn employs a straightforward, just-the-facts approach to her devastating play-by-play indictment of the barely legal shenanigans that led to our current mess. From the initial stock market free-fall and the attendant billions in government bailouts to Jon Stewart’s recent mano a mano with Jim Cramer, none of this is new information for anyone who has at least been semi-sentient for the past year or so. But what makes Cockburn’s film an especially valuable addition to the burgeoning collection of economic crisis postmortems is that she goes beyond the facts and figures to show us the human faces behind the numbers. Cockburn offers specific, poignant examples of people who existed as simply a line on a brokerage firm’s computer screen, reminding us that these were not simply irresponsible and naïve would-be homeowners, but people with lives of value that are real, and in some cases, tragic. Cockburn also details the aftereffects of the spreading cancer of mass foreclosures and how they led to depressed neighborhood property values, crime, and disease. Class and race were very much a part of the picture also, as Cockburn persuasively demonstrates: the deregulated toxic sub-prime loans that were, and remain, a major part of this crisis were deliberately targeted towards minorities and low-income homeowners, many of whom actually qualified for prime loans. These were the chips that were the currency of the “American Casino,” since through derivatives, credit-default swaps, and other such unregulated financial products, bets would essentially be made on which consumers would default on loans made to them, and billions were made on both sides of the equation. Cockburn’s briskly paced yet sobering documentary makes its case powerfully, and is a humanist work in the best sense, always keeping the individual victims of Wall Street’s games as its central focus.

American Casino is scheduled to run at Film Forum from Sept. 2 through Sept. 15. Click here to purchase tickets.

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