Spinning The Housing Wheel

'American Casino' *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 Stars)

Documentary Lays Bare The Schemes Behind America's Mortgage Nightmare

November 13, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

With a major section set in Baltimore, "American Casino," a documentary about the subprime mortgage crisis, has the power of a haymaker that somehow sneaks up on you. It's a nightmare that starts like a normal daytime drive and ends in a vortex-like sinkhole.

The director, Leslie Cockburn, and her co-writer (and husband), Andrew Cockburn, design their work as a reported essay, not a grandstanding polemic or a nonfiction novel. They personalize our financial system with a no-nonsense frankness. Whether they interview a financial wizard shrouded in darkness or a clinical therapist who faces foreclosure in the glare of day, they view each participant without condescension. Their subjects honestly earn our disdain, our sorrow or our sympathy.

The ruling metaphor of gambling for real-estate chicanery might at first seem routine. Then the movie spells out that for most participants, entering the market or buying a home was like walking into a casino without knowing the rules.

Unlike Michael Moore in "Capitalism," who turns the inability of Wall Street pros to define "derivatives" into a good joke, the Cockburns painstakingly dissect the schemes usually described as "complex financial instruments."

Some turn out to be not so complex. They involve banks lumping and re-lumping loans together, then credit agencies OK'ing these dubious packages without due diligence. To untangle more complicated maneuvers, such as credit-default transactions, the Cockburns rely on the commentary of first-class instructors, including Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and former director of the trading and markets division at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Whether the details of these grifts stay in a viewer's brain or merely leave an oily residue on the cranium, the lucidity and openness of the Cockburns' presentation brings the movie an overpowering authority.

There's no way anyone could leave this picture and not realize that the trickle-down economic flow that some capitalists thought gave our system its vitality was fatally rerouted so that money flowed up - right out of the pockets of people like Baltimore schoolteacher Denzel Mitchell. He was enticed into a deal that ballooned on him immediately because of hidden costs. Mitchell is African-American. The movie supports the thesis that subprime mortgage brokers in black neighborhoods preyed on minority buyers, even when these would-be home-owners would have qualified for regular loans from reliable banks. This "reverse redlining" accounts for broken dreams and blighted streets.

The film contains several heroic Baltimore characters, including city employees and nonprofit counselors who clean up the real-estate meltdown's physical and existential mess. But Mitchell is the one who brings the movie's roulette wheel full circle. We see his place sold at auction on the steps of City Hall, to the only bidder in sight - and later watch as a financial reporter traces Mitchell's loan into a pool of Goldman Sachs assets.

The film's last section dives into different kinds of pools: the neglected backyard swimming pools of repossessed homes in swank California developments. In yards that serve as nests for vermin, mosquito-laden pools become giant petri dishes for diseases like West Nile virus. What makes the movie haunting as well as intellectually potent is the contrast between the eloquent poignancy of Mitchell as he leads us through his foreclosed home and the ultimate dehumanization of these arid West Coast suburban wastelands.

Edgar Guest, the doggerel poet laureate of another now-devastated state, Michigan, famously wrote, "It takes a heap o' living in a house t' make it home." Living has nothing to do with the housing market in "American Casino." This movie presents the tragic spectacle of homes reduced to gambling chits.

MPAA rating: Unrated

Cast: A documentary directed by Leslie Cockburn

Credits: An Argot Pictures release. Running time: 1:29

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