When the economy imploded last year, prompting a massive taxpayer bailout of the banks, investment houses, insurance giants, and other pillars of our financial foundation, people were justifiably angry, but didn’t know where to direct their pitchforks. While many understood that the housing market collapsed due to bad loans given to people who couldn’t pay them, most didn’t understand why such counterintuitive transactions were allowed to take place, or how they could be considered good business. And still more were flummoxed by the wonky terminology used to describe complex, unregulated derivatives, like “credit default swaps,” which famed investor Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”
In May 2008, PRI’s This American Life ran an hourlong segment called “The Giant Pool Of Money” that immediately became the impossible standard by which all subprime mortgage overviews should be judged—clear, accessible, thorough, and with an extraordinary sense of how the catastrophe rippled through the economy and destroyed lives. (The segment proved so popular that its producers, Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson, followed up with several more TAL appearances and their own Planet Money podcast.) Released nearly a full year after the meltdown, the passable documentary overview American Casino suffers from a lack of timeliness and a failure to match “The Giant Pool Of Money” on almost every level. On both counts, it isn’t entirely the filmmakers’ fault: Movies simply take a much longer time from conception to distribution than a radio segment, and American Casino tries for the same mix of macroeconomics and personal stories, but to understandably lesser effect.
Director Leslie Cockburn interviews the expected talking heads from the banking sector and visits the homes (or soon-to-be-foreclosed homes) of subprime mortgage victims in Baltimore—many of whom, the film asserts convincingly, were targeted minorities. But the film doesn’t come to life until too late in the game, when it takes the original tack of exploring the housing crisis through abandoned backyard swimming pools, which become natural breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and an environment where rodents and snakes can thrive. If you’re searching for a metaphor, look no further.