Oscar nominee review: American Hustle


WASHINGTON, February 11,2014 — With eight weekends between the announcement of the Oscar nominee’s and the award ceremony itself, many people will be going to the theaters to try and get caught up on the hottest films this winter. Each week, we will spotlight one of the Oscar’s star films from the Best Picture Category by going out to the movies, and then recapping the film here on the site. This week, we showcase American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, and starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence.

American Hustle is a film about us. “Some of this actually happened,” it tells us in the opening credits. We are drawn to the characters with their tacky bad behaviors, their hard circumstances and their blatant untrustworthiness, not because they are like us, but because the performances are so powerful and because (as we were warned) some of this actually happened.

Bales transformation into his character is astounding. He not only subjects himself to physical changes, but also adapts every mannerism, every facial tic, every speech cadence to go beyond acting; Bales literally becomes the character.

And who is this man? In the grand scheme of things, he’s a nobody. A small time grifter, hustling cash-strapped losers from his own neighborhood with tired cons. A guy who collects and stores the unclaimed clothes and furs from his dry cleaning customers in a vault against his future need for them.

But despite the petty nature of his crimes, he is a craftsman. His cons are profoundly complete, even at the small ball level he chooses to play. And he is a man who knows the level at which he is playing, and has the confidence of knowing that at that level, he can be as successful as he wants and never attract too much of the wrong attention.

That is the central message. Reaching too far, aspiring too much, flying too close to the sun, unless we are profoundly prepared, never ends well.

The story is set in the 1970s and as America tries to put the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate behind us via a cocaine-fueled disco inferno, at the center of which sits New York City. America is in a “malaise” as President Carter would famously say. Inflation is rampant, OPEC oil embargos drive up gas prices, and the Middle East, particularly Iran, is unsettled.

Against this backdrop, Americans struggled to identify their new normal. We would ultimately land smack in the Regan era, a “morning in America” that would see America re-established as a major political, military and economic world power. That achievement, that reawakening of a national self-confidence powered by the me-generation and culminating in the downfall of communism was achieved by aggressive aspiration. Reaching farther than people thought possible. Leaving it all on the field, as we say about athletes. Hustle, as we also say about athletes. But such aspiration is not without risk.

American Hustle is a fable from the earliest days of that ten-year period of American aspiration that extends from the late 1970s through the late 1980s.  It is a story of a man who knows the limits of his own skills. Rosenfeld, foiled first by a lover and business partner reaching too far and ultimately, and more completely, by the ambition of DiMaso, an FBI agent too eager for recognition and reward to notice that the wax on his wings grew softer the closer he flew to the sun.

To our dismay, we root for Rosenfeld. He is our anti-hero who, like us, sees the full context and implication of what DiMaso wants to do. Rosenfeld after all asks if the country is ready for ABSCAM so soon after Watergate. More importantly, he sees the gaps extant in the foundation DiMaso has laid for his con. And when Rosenfeld ultimately navigates through the inherent pitfalls in DiMaso’s plan, we cheer for him. Even as we know that the aspiration DiMaso embodies, the ambition he represents, is just the tonic that will ultimately cure of us our societal malaise and put us on track to the decade and the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s.

Hustle should be honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures this year with a win in the best picture category for all of these reasons but the Academy does not seem to like giving Oscar to comedies. The last comedy to win the best picture was Annie Hall in 1978. Although American Hustle is not a side splitting, laugh a minute movie, it is deep down a comedy movie. For this reason only, is might miss out on the top prize this year but the actors will have to be recognized for their performances.

Did you see American Hustle? Which awards do you expect it to take home this year? Leave us notes in the comments about what you thought. And check back next week for the next installment in our countdown to the Academy Awards.

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