MOTW: "American Hustle" - The True Story

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The story of a con artist and his partner in crime, who were forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politicians - namely, the volatile mayor of impoverished Camden, New Jersey.
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures
February 10th, 2014

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In the opening credits of "American Hustle," there is a short message that states, "Some of this actually happened." This is due to the fact that certain creative liberties were taken for entertainment purposes, as well as to protect the identities of individuals who were actually involved with the ABSCAM case, the FBI case that resulted in multiple bribery convictions of elected officials in 1980. The movie stars Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a con man who gets caught scamming unsuspecting individuals out of down payments for high interest loans. To save Sydney, his partner in crime and mistress played by Amy Adams, Irving must set up a variety of individuals, leading to four more arrests. The set-ups take a huge turn, and suddenly Irving becomes involved with setting up local politicians, resulting in a whirlwind of chaos.

Irving Rosenfeld is based on the real-life con man Mel Weinberg. As portrayed in the film, Weinberg started hustling at a young age, breaking windows all over town to stir up business for his father's glass company. He also ran a fraudulent loan company called London Investments, where he bilked unsuspecting customers out of large down payments for loans that never materialized. In the film, Irving lets Sydney take the fall for the fraudulent loans, and in turn must work for the FBI to set her free. This ultimately leads to the conviction of Carmine Polito, the Mayor of Camden, N.J., among others. Carmine Polito is played by Jeremy Renner, and his character is based on Angelo Errichetti, the real-life Mayor of Camden who served time for his participation in the scandal.

ABSCAM was originally started by the FBI to investigate stolen art, theft and forgery, and Mel Weinberg was brought in to set up the meetings between fraudsters and fake Arab investors. The investigation turned to corrupt politicians when an individual under investigation unknowingly gave the FBI/ABSCAM a tip on investing in local casinos. The FBI targeted Mayor Errichetti, who was desperate to turn Camden back into a lucrative and thriving city. He agreed to help the Sheik in exchange for money for the city, and in turn handed over a handful of crooked politicians. These events are quite similar to the movie, but there are certain small differences. In the film, Irving is portrayed as sympathetic to the Mayor, and claims he was able to get him a reduced sentence of 18 months. In reality, Errichetti was sentenced to six years of which he served two and a half.

Mel Weinberg had a long-term mistress, Evelyn, who was actually from London. In the movie, Sydney pulls off multiple scams by pretending she is from London, when in actuality she is from New Mexico, desperately trying to escape her past as an exotic dancer. Bradley Cooper plays Richie Dimaso, the loose cannon FBI agent who is dead set on taking down as many corrupt politicians as he can to make a name for himself in the FBI. His character is actually based on two agents, Anthony Amoroso and John Good.

Amoroso is seen on actual FBI footage working undercover and meeting with politicians, while Good stayed behind the scenes, overseeing the operation. The reality between Cooper's portrayal and the real agents is unknown; however, various reports stated that Amoroso spent lavish amounts of money on rooms at the Plaza Hotel, expensive cars, gambling excursions and more. As shown in the movie, the agents rented the rooms at the Plaza to create a believable meeting place for the Sheik and the politicians.

One of the saddest aspects to the true story of ABSCAM is the relationship between Mel Weinberg and his real-life wife, Marie. In the movie, Marie is known as Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence. There is a visible age difference between Marie and Rosalyn, and at the film's end, Rosalyn and Irving part company in an amicable way, leading the audience to believe they remained friends. The reality of their story is much darker, as Marie Weinberg committed suicide in 1982 after she spoke to various media outlets regarding Mel's participation in the scandal.

While the real story of ABSCAM and the movie "American Hustle" have their share of differences, the story is extremely well written and the acting is impeccable. The movie grabs the viewer from the very first scene and provides a nice history lesson on a time and place that is unfamiliar to most of today's generation. "American Hustle" makes no claims that it is 100 percent factual, and the well-crafted story combined with the Oscar-worthy performances of the cast members makes it a memorable and enjoyable experience for movie-goers.