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(No longer in theaters)
The most awkward aspect of Leslie and Andrew Cockburn’s sensationally effective subprime-mortgage-catastrophe doc American Casino is also its most compelling. The movie leaps back and forth between two milieus seemingly a million miles apart: talking white heads—Wall Street analysts and ex-traders (faces shadowed and voices distorted) who explain how much money could be made pushing loans on people with little chance of paying it back—and neighborhoods where the damage has hit home. The Cockburns travel to Baltimore, where dazed, middle-class African-Americans cope with foreclosures and evictions, having been misled into thinking their monthly payments would be hundreds of dollars less than they were. After more charts and white talking heads (Phil Gramm calling us a nation of whiners and Alan Greenspan—looking a hundred years old—admitting to Congress that there was “a flaw”) and a look at the obscene amounts of the house’s money gambled away by greed-drunken traders, we’re in Stockton, California, among the empty mini-mansions, where abandoned swimming pools are a hotbed of West Nile virus. What a metaphor. An infamous internal e-mail from one Standard & Poor’s analyst to another should be emblazoned over Wall Street: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” The Cockburn’s own gamble—the abrupt changes in scale—pays off. You’ll never hear an economist explain derivatives again without thinking of the woman who walks away from the camera, weeping, as her mortgage broker refuses her check or the child’s doll splayed out on the floor of a vacated house.