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American Hustle (2013) shows the life and business of a fraud named Irving Rosenfeld, his companion in business and love, Sydney Prosser, and agent Richie DiMaso. They become the core of the FBI operation aimed to uncover and cut the corruption chain in New Jersey. In the course of the events, while the trio manages to catch some “big fish”, they face dangers and challenges that come from the outside world (mafia, the FBI, family), as well as from the inside (personal decay and sacrifice for the sake of survival). The story centers on personal human dramas interconnected with a generalized portrayal of the world of mafia and other powerbrokers, as well as the FBI’s “witch hunt” operations fueled by personal gains more than communal benefits. The background of the story is the life in New Jersey in the 1970s.
The performance of all actors is noteworthy and brilliant. However, it would be reasonable to focus exclusively on Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale’s character. It is known that David O. Russell tends to put actors out of their comfort zone when they impersonate his characters. For Bale, American Hustle was a double challenge. He had to go through a body-type metamorphosis (gaining weight) and a moral shift to depict a man obsessed with many things, including his baldness, Sydney and survival. Bales’ acting is convincing and natural.
Cinematography in American Hustle is outstanding. The most impressive feature is the 360-degree camera movement that leaves no part of the set or prop uncovered. The camera moves around the room, follows the characters, meets and faces them, etc. On the one hand, it creates the effect of full presence of the viewer, whie on the other hand, it provides the full presence of all actors involved in the scene.
David O. Russell has a peculiar style of making movies. American Hustle is rather an eloquent proof than an exception to this rule. Indeed, the film bears Russell’s signature and can be easily recognized by the admirers of his work. One of the pivotal features of Russell’s style is the focus on characters. The mise-en-scene wraps itself around the characters and serves as a colorful background to intensify the acting. Russell’s characters, in particular, those from American Hustle, are unique, complex and vivid as they conflict over survival. In fact, the theme of survival is the leitmotif of American Hustle and many other films directed by David O. Russell. His stories focus on people from different, often conflicting worlds, who always show the dark side and true face of humans in extraordinary and ordinary life situations. Russell aims to show that the world is not a black-and-white place, and that people often make “gray” decisions. Besides all the aforementioned, the exclusive feature in American Hustle is the film’s tone. A viewer will definitely have an inner conflict over how to react to the story, being torn between tears and laughter; so bizarre the characters and situations are. One may label it a specific director’s sense of humor in filmmaking and storytelling. In general, American Hustle fits perfectly into the paradigm of Russell’s directing style.
I am not sure how to react to American Hustle. I am one of the viewers in which the film provokes mixed and confused emotions. On the one hand, the story shows multiple human tragedies and dramas so that they arouse sympathy towards tthe characters. On the other hand, the manner of storytelling and oddity of the circumstances brings the movie on the edge of comedy. Thus, the film is ambiguous. Personally, I did not understand the challenge Christian Bale faced when transforming into Irving. To my mind, the distortion of the man’s physicality and the introduction of a wig with an artificial bold spot was not justified. Perhaps, to the actor, it brought a connection with the character, but to me as a viewer, it brought only the constant feeling of pity and even disgust. However, let alone aesthetics, the transformation deserves admiration from a purely cinematographic standpoint. To me, the most touching and emotionally appealing part of the film is connected with the story of Mayor Carmine Polito, Jeremy Renner’s character. Interestingly, the Mayor appeared to be a victim of both the hustle and his own wholehearted desire to make New Jersey prosper. Somehow, Polito was a more innocent man than the ones who involved him into their game. In general, the situation is tragically absurd and looks like fighting windmills. After all, as Irving said:
We took down some very big guys. Some of whom, they were just doing business as usual, helping their communities or their states, but some of them knew they had larceny in their blood... But in all, it was six congressmen, one United States senator, and my friend Carmine Polito… (Russell, 2013)
However, the saddest part is that the FBI did not overcome the mafia per se, the engine of corruption evil. In conclusion, the combination of bright, bizarre characters and the director’s presentation of life and people as colored gray are the two features of the movie that touched and intrigued me.