American Casino Snipes at America’s Subprime Bloodsuckers with TV-Blandness


At the very least, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson owes Denzel Mitchell a nice e-card: Mitchell, a Baltimore high school teacher, was one of the countless Americans whose shady subprime mortgage poured money into Goldman Sachs’ coffers during Paulson’s tenure as CEO. Alas, Mitchell had his finances bled dry by higher-than-indicated payments and lost his modest home—including the garden out back that fed his kids—while Paulson walked away with a tax-free $600 million nest egg. If ever an occasion called for guttersnipe fury, it’s the subprime lending crisis and its subsequent $8 trillion bailout, but this authoritative, far-reaching documentary by veteran investigative journalists Leslie and Andrew Cockburn comes off as curiously bloodless. They lead with the sense-numbing contours of the crisis—the “house of cards” described in an internal Standard & Poor’s memo as early as 2006, propped up on credit derivatives, CDOs, and deceitful loans targeting minorities and the working poor—before showing the devastating effect of this chicanery on a Baltimore neighborhood wracked by more than 700 foreclosures. (This should have been the sixth season of The Wire.) The serious-TV blandness of the filmmaking mutes the outrage that its subjects provoke, and the “casino” metaphor does little to bolster their arguments visually or thematically. Indeed, a better metaphor might have been cancer: The Cockburns’ most inventive stroke is to show the crisis’s effects manifesting as a kind of heartland metastasis—unkempt lawns heralding a plummet in property values, abandoned swimming pools turning into breeding grounds for virus-spreading mosquitoes. Grim as that is, the filmmakers prove beyond doubt that America has far bigger bloodsuckers to worry about.