Leslie Cockburn’s “American Casino” – Documentary Review

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.

None of this is new information for anyone who has at least been semi-sentient for the past six months or so, from the initial stock market free-fall and the attendant billions in government bailouts to Jon Stewart’s on-air mano-a-mano with Jim Cramer. But what makes Cockburn’s film a particularly 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 merely a line on a brokerage firm’s computer screen. The film shows that would-be homeowners are not simply irresponsible and naïve, but people with real, and in some cases tragic, lives. Cockburn details how the spreading cancer of mass foreclosures lead to depressed neighborhood property values, crime and disease. Class and race are very much a part of the picture as well. Cockburn persuasively depicts how the deregulated toxic sub-prime loans that were and continue to be 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 who 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” screens on April 29 and May 2 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Cockburn will participate in a “Tribeca Talks: After the Movie” panel discussion after the May 2 screening at the Directors Guild Theater.