In Baltimore, risky business
By Dan Kois
Friday, Oct. 30, 2009
Upon watching "American Casino," a well-constructed documentary about the subprime mortgage crisis from Washington's Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, one of my first responses was to feel bad for Baltimore.
This was only after, of course, feeling complete wonder at the inventive ways banks, mortgage brokers and insurance companies found to fail the American people, sadness at the plights of those who have lost their homes, and fear that somewhere in my mortgage hides fine print that will one day relegate my family to my in-laws' basement.
But yes, Baltimore. At this point, B'more is superseded only by Detroit in the race for America's Most Photogenic Economic Disaster. As Leslie Cockburn's camera roams the foreclosed rowhouses of Baltimore, their planked-up doors reminiscent of shots from "The Wire," I thought: Baltimore needs some good PR. A charm offensive for Charm City. At least the movie put some money into the community, in the form of commissioning a couple of (not-so-great) hip-hop tracks about the mortgage crisis from such local rappers as B. Dazzle and Kojo Hotflow.
A systematic explanation of why, as an opening title notes, "the U.S. government has pledged over $12 trillion . . . to bail out Wall Street" -- and an empathetic attempt to connect numbers on a computer screen to the lives being forever changed by foreclosure -- "American Casino" is at its strongest when it draws a straight line from, say, Denzel Mitchell, a friendly, bankrupt Baltimore high school teacher, all the way to Goldman Sachs, the company that gambled on bonds based on his subprime mortgage. Through carefully selected interviews, the Cockburns clearly establish the effects of "agents along the value chain" who got rich by packaging and repackaging high-risk loans until there's no real link between the borrower and the money. Until it all collapses. As one reporter, pointing out the astonishingly high default rates in the packaged loans Goldman bought, wryly notes, "No one told Denzel that he's a chip."
Anyone who already understands the current economic disaster will find little new in "American Casino." But for the rest of us, this "Frontline"-esque documentary is at turns eye-opening (a former mortgage broker smilingly admits that he, and everyone he worked with, regularly altered unqualified and unwitting borrowers' financials in order to secure loans) and enraging (hedge investor Jeff Greene explains, from the deck of his Malibu home, how he has earned $500 million betting on the default of high-risk bonds).
At times, the Cockburns' attempts to offer context fall flat, as when a marketing professor offers a dull, thesis-length explanation of what makes mortgage ads enticing. But you won't soon forget the therapist at Johns Hopkins who counsels recently homeless patients who've fallen into depression or substance abuse -- and then goes home to her own bitter foreclosure fight.
Kois is a freelancer reviewer.
* * * Unrated. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains nothing obscene, although plenty that's appalling. 89 minutes.