American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street shut their ears to recent history's content and sequence, even as they perform its songs and dances
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell’s Scorsese-inspired American Hustle have much in common besides their December release dates and Oscar nominations. Both films are, in a sense, historical, depicting a bygone epoch and drawing inspiration from real events. They depict sequential moments in American social history, and their aesthetic logics can be contrasted in terms of the historically specific contexts they claim to represent. Where Hustle draws its narrative juice from the painful social conflicts of the 1970s, Wolf floats freely in historical denial, cut loose from dramatic conflict by the suppression of class struggle after the end of the Cold War.
Hustle is inspired by the 1978 Abscam sting operation, launched by the FBI to target corrupt politicians. Early in the film, the desperation of the late ’70s — the objective economic circumstances driving people to hustle — is explicitly thematized in a speech by Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to her soon-to-be partner in crime Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale):
You’re their last resort? Because interest rates are north of 12 percent and heading to 18 percent ... Fucking Jimmy Carter. Fucking Nixon really. And the war and the deficit and all of that shit.
These words allude to the so-called “Volcker shock,” in which Carter's Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker imposed brutal monetary discipline to break the back of stubborn inflation and flagging growth. Soon after she curses Carter, Prosser and Rosenfeld are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and forced to lend their con artistry to what would become known as Abscam.
The rest of the film centers on DiMaso's attempt to trick Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into accepting a bribe from an ersatz Arab sheik. Rosenfeld's grudging participation — increasingly painful given the genuine friendship he, to his own surprise, develops with Polito — seals the mayor's fate.
Predictably, Hustle generates some of its narrative energy by departing from the historical record. As the opening title card announces, only “some of this actually happened.” Polito is inspired by the real-life Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti, who helped develop Atlantic City before being ensared in Abscam. Errichetti, by all accounts deeply corrupt, is reimagined in the film as a noble but flawed hero. Russell makes Polito an entirely sympathetic character who is driven reluctantly and selflessly to graft. He compromises his political ethics only so he can try to create jobs for his beloved black and Hispanic constituents (in the film, Polito even has a black adopted son). Far from emblematic of someendemic New Jersey venality, his politics are specifically determined by the urban crisis that beset Camden in the decade leading up to the action of Hustle. Employment in iconic Fordist industries like RCA Victor and Campbell's Soup vanished, and riots broke out in 1969 and again in 1971. Real-life mayor Errichetti said the city in the 1970s “looked like the Vietcong had bombed us to get even.”
In the film, Polito, at a climactic moment, says, “I’ve been doing this for a long time, for 20 years. Do you think I woulda taken that money if it wasn't the right thing to do?” Essentially he is asking that his actions be properly historicized. We can be more specific: His dealings correspond to the conflict of the dying New Deal order, serving as a desperate attempt to reassert the countervailing agency that popular politics once seemed to exercise over capitalism. In this, Polito strongly resembles Frank Sobotka, the leader of the longshoremen's union in the second season of The Wire (2003). Sobotka uses his smuggling kickbacks to buy support for government investment in port infrastructure; Polito leads his state to legalize a new industry and then arranges shady funding when private efforts — the sine qua non of neoliberal industrial policy — lag. Both schemes are jerry-rigged public works programs (Polito even compares his casino project to Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration), attempts to sneak around the ultimate but unspeakable source of disinvestment and unemployment: private control of the social product. “The goddamn bankers. Keeping their money on the sidelines. How we supposed to get anything done?” Polito complains, naming his dilemma for what it is: a capital strike.
In its effects, the deindustrialization of Baltimore and Camden resembled a great crime, but the process conformed to every law. An emerging ideological “common sense” would even justify the devastation as the inevitable result of natural economic forces, leaving little room to imagine or enact alternative political solutions. Rejecting that consensus, Hustle and The Wire wring pathos from this history, translating it into tales of honest men who must become criminals to preserve the only world they've ever known. Corruption is figured as the final desperate refuge of class politics after the undoing of the midcentury “class compromise.”
The global forces shaping the economic order that emerged from the crisis of the 1970s could not be mastered by union leaders or municipal politicians. Fredric Jameson, who popularized “late capitalism” as a name for the new conjuncture, qualified his analysis with the disclaimer that the system was “unrepresentable.” Both Hustle and The Wire bear this out to a degree: Global capitalism appears to its victims only in metonymic fragments — a near-mute Arab sheik here and an unprepossessing Greek crime boss there. These “characters” are largely misdirection, not least because they are faking their nationalities: Hustle’s “Sheik Abdullah” is a Mexican-American FBI agent, while the international drug trafficker in The Wire known as “The Greek” reveals in private that he is “not even Greek.” The inability of the other characters to deal with “them Greeks and those twisted-ass names” or to distinguish a real Arab (the inadequacy of Polito’s mental road maps is revealed when he asks Irving if “the sheik is black”) shows how out of their depths such figures are in negotiating what Jameson called “this whole extraordinarily demoralizing and depressing original new global space.”
In American Hustle, Polito (“his father,” we are told, “had emigrated from Italy and had stoked coal”) and Rosenfeld (whose Jewish-American father repaired glass windows in the Bronx) have a much easier time, at least at first, negotiating relationships with each other. At a crucial moment, Polito puts his trust in Rosenfeld when he reveals the Bronx address where he grew up and the two compare notes on a local Italian restaurant. As the shooting script puts it, Carmine realizes that “he and Irv are cut from the same cloth.”
The ease with which this blue-collar bond develops suggests the legacy of what Michael Denning calls “the age of the CIO,” when industrial unionism helped the children and grandchildren of the southern and eastern European immigrants forge a common consciousness in cities like Camden and New York. Rosenfeld is skeptical of the FBI sting, accusing DiMaso of “ruining America” for undermining public faith in the government. He recognizes the stakes of Polito's political project: “the ones who are working hardest to get the economy of New Jersey going, those are the ones that you round up.”
But Rosenfeld's vestigial loyalties are easily subordinated to a larger scheme, and his friendship with Polito is cut short. A world navigated in terms of the Bronx cross streets and ethnic restaurants Polito and Rosenfeld can swap in trust-building small talk gives way to the terrifying heteronomy of larger, more obscure systems. “The loss of his friendship,” Rosenfeld concludes, “would haunt me for the rest of my life.” Even though the film provides a happy ending for Rosenfeld and his partner Sydney, the unresolved tragedy of this friendship registers the irreversible damage wrought by the neoliberal onslaught.
If American Hustle's tragedy is a mediated reflection of the defeat of popular social forces that once hoped to contain capitalism, The Wolf of Wall Street, which is set about a decade later, is a testament to the effects of that defeat. In the period separating Wolf's earliest scenes from the Abscam revelations, Volcker's monetary policy, helped by the arrest of dozens of striking air traffic controllers, had gone a long way toward achieving the Fed chairman's stated goal: “the standard of living of the average American has to decline.” The decisive defeat of working-class resistance points the way toward the no-stakes, depoliticized universe inhabited by Jordan Belfort, the real-life criminal on whose memoirs Wolf is based.
Wolf, which takes place in an era that celebrated “the end of history,” has a narrative flatness that appropriately mirrors the suppression of substantial political conflict. For almost three hours, Wolf's protagonist Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes money through mundane stock-market chicanery and spends it conspicuously on legal and illegal commodities. His motivations are uncomplicated, his inner conflicts nonexistent, and his comeuppance minimal. None of his laddish band of business partners possesses any distinguishing characteristics, and despite coming from the same quirky outerborough universe as Irving Rosenfeld and Carmine Polito, betray no collective consciousness. They each respond to the prospect of fraud-financed indulgence exactly like Belfort does — exactly, it is implied, as any red-blooded man would. When the FBI closes in, everyone sells everyone else out. Belfort makes one attempt to save his closest associate but seems undistressed by his failure. The loss of this friendship will not haunt anyone.
Belfort then quits drugs and completes a brief prison sentence that he brags was easy because “I was rich in a place where everything was for sale.” The film concludes with Belfort, who has successfully parlayed his criminal notoriety into a motivational-speaking business, triumphant and apparently remorseless.
Perhaps there is a bitter realism in this depiction of Wall Street sociopathy. But Wolf is almost as uninterested in commodities as it is in human relationships. The film's inexact, indifferent attitude toward the actual workings of finance is manifest on multiple occasions when Belfort addresses the audience directly. After beginning to explain a concept that is fairly basic to the plot (e.g. what an IPO is), he cuts himself short: “You know what, you’re probably not following what I’m saying.” Or, “Like I said before, who gives a shit?” These dismissals ratify the lessons dispensed earlier by Belfort's coked-to-the-gills mentor (played by Matthew McConaughey), who resorts to literal nonsense to explain the aleatory nature of the market: “Nobody knows if a stock’s going up, down, or fucking sideways, least of all stock brokers ... fugayzi, fugahzi, it's a wahzi, it's a woozie [high-pitched, wordless sounds]—fairy dust!” Why look below the surface of exchange? There's nothing to see here.
Given such lack of interest in historical or economic specifics, the film's attempts at addressing contemporary concerns fall flat. During an extended confrontation aboard his yacht, Belfort tells an FBI agent:
You know who you should be looking at? Goldman, Lehman Brothers, Merrill. What those guys’re up to with collateralized debt obligations? This internet stock bullshit?
Time here is extravagantly out of joint. The scene directly follows the 1993 Steve Madden IPO (according to the shooting script, two years have passed), but Belfort can apparently already foresee both the dotcom crash of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008 (albeit in an oddly reversed sequence). If he were really so prescient, of course, he would hardly need to pump and dump his way to the top. This incongruity may be meant to elicit knowing laughter among those who recognize the shout-out to CDOs, and perhaps to acknowledge that Belfort is ultimately a minor presence in Wall Street history. But the joke is not subtle enough to be funny, and any attempt at cutting “the Wolf” down to size is compromised by the decision to gift him with magical foresight. The lack of historical accuracy here instead suggests an eternal present: Belfort might as well be operating in 2007, or in 2014, as at any time in the past.
Hustle emphasizes pop songs its protagonists might have listened to, and advances its characterization through actual scenes of listening, dancing, and singing. By contrast, none of the dozens of songs in Wolf are diegetic, and the privileged genre within the diverse playlist is the electric blues of the 1950s and 1960s. There is no indication that Belfort, or anyone else onscreen, would even have heard of Elmore James or John Lee Hooker. Of course, a movie's soundtrack need not be dictated by the possible or actual musical tastes of its characters. But here the disjunction mostly reinforces Wolf's weightlessness. Belfort's yuppie hedonism is matched with the tough vernacular music of industrial black Chicago, less for irony than as a macho mixtape to complement the film's interminable depictions of bros behaving badly. Jordan Belfort is Mick Jagger is Howlin' Wolf is Caligula.
There has been some controversy about whether Wolf celebrates Belfort, with Christina McDowell (the daughter of one of Belfort's partners) publishing a particularly widely read complaint about the film's apparent indifference to its hero's victims. I see the film as a rough aesthetic equivalent of the political phenomenon known as regulatory capture. Just as the finance industry has parlayed its disciplined organization and claims to superior knowledge into significant control over the bodies intended to regulate finance, Jordan Belfort — who utterly charmed Scorsese, his screenwriter, and the actors, by their own accounts — came to occupy a dominant position in shaping a film meant to turn his “life rights” into serious art. His sensibility pervades the shooting script, where the “detached” third-person of the stage directions frequently collapses into Belfort's voice. In the directions, a woman is introduced as “a living wet dream,” Belfort's employees “worship him” [emphasis in original], and his audiences are “desperate for Jordan’s knowledge.” “Blue Chip Hooker” — Belfort's private slang for a “top of the line” sex worker — is used (and capitalized) throughout as if it were a technical term.
Belfort has also exploited his closeness to the making of the movie with an eye toward his current business pursuits. This racket is directly integrated into the film's closing scene, in which a man gives an exuberant introduction to one of Belfort's motivational-speaking performances. The final credits reveal that the hype man is none other than the real Jordan Belfort himself, so in on the joke that he is allowed to deliver a paean to himself.
Offscreen, DiCaprio released a video endorsement of Belfort's Straight Line Sales Psychology classes, calling Belfort “a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work.” Considering how little of this “transformative” “hard work” Wolf shows onscreen, the plaudit feels cheap, a feel-good twist ending for a movie that never justifies one. More materially, DiCaprio's claim that Belfort “spent the rest of his life trying to reverse all the atrocities” is at odds with the recent charge by federal prosecutors that “he has not fully complied with his payment obligations.”
With this effortless absolution, Wolf concludes as a comedy, dissolving all difficulty in the generic conventions of the personal memoir. The tale's timelessness — DiCaprio calls it “a modern-day Caligula” — is by turns troubling and comforting: There will always be individuals who struggle with their appetites, but there is always a chance they will save themselves through an individual transformation. This is a reasonable way for people to understand the world in the absence of meaningful political contestation, and perhaps the objective weakness of anti-systemic movements lends Wolf its moment of truth. But the emptiness of Belfort's redemption should remind us that the only possibility of real resolution lies in the terrain of collective history.