Spoiler Alertif you haven’t seen the movie this will ruin it for you 

            It is quite telling that David O’Russell’s new masterpiece American Hustle (Annapurna Pictures, 2013), had as its working title, American B*llshit. Its title in France was American Bluff, and most intriguing of all was the title in Italian, American Hustle- L’apparenza inganna, which roughly translated is American Hustle- Looks can be Deceiving.*


            In a way, each of these titles contributes to understanding the content of the movie, but only the last of them points well to how the movie functions at a political level. The film on the surface has an all-star hollywood cast, set within all the glam of 1978, full of lust, power, and greed, but at its heart it, whether O’Russell intended so or not, exposes the heart of how the State deals with the problem of evil in its desire to eradicate it. The movie appears to be about how some tricksters hustled the FBI out of its glory for solving the investigation, and in turn how they, the tricksters, became good guys because all they wanted was freedom and the chance to re-create their lives. It appears to be about how a corrupt cop got his ass handed to him for being too egotistical by a hustler, who deep down just wants to be a good person and escape the poverty his father struggled with. As with so many narratives however, this is not what the movie is really about at all.

            Is corruption obvious? Or is it hidden? The answer of American Hustle is- hidden. Corruption is hidden in fraudulent loan companies, corruption is hidden in the heart of cops who seek after glory, corruption is hidden in the innocent manipulation of a sexy baby-mama, corruption is hidden in the potential of politicians libel to take bribes, corruption is hidden in the heart of the good-doer politicians who are willing to help their people by any means necessary, corruption is hidden behind the faces of corporate mafia owners, and corruption is hidden even in the hearts of children trying to help their father’s business grow. The difficultly then with the philosophy of hidden corruption is how to eradicate it from one’s society, for you would essentially have to draw it out of its hiding.

            What American Hustle then is about is the ‘American’ way of how to draw this corruption out and eradicate it. The most interesting thing is that the hidden corruption throughout the film is never eradicated unless it is drawn out, if it is not drawn out it stays. The most obvious example are the mafia bosses of the casino companies, they’re known to be corrupt but their corruption is never drawn out into the light of day and therefore it remains. The opposite of this, that is corruption that is drawn out and eradicated, is that of the politicians libel to take bribes whether ‘kind’ hearted or not. Notice however the stranger aspect of this case, before the corruption is drawn out, it does not existThere is no corruption of politicians taking bribes until the FBI makes it happen.

            Is this not the current practice of many within state power to root out terrorism? Is not often the disaster created, or ‘the inevitable corruption, drawn out’, so that it can be caught, stopped, and eradicated? Trevor Aaronson in his work, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (Ig Publishing, 2013), concludes that within the past 10 years following 9/11 that  “…the organization responsible for more terrorist plots over the last decade than any other is the FBI.” (24)** The methods vary, but one of them is that an FBI agent will infiltrate a ‘cell’ or a group of people, give them the idea to carry out the terrorist plot, in some cases even supply the weapons (!!!), then catch them before they carry out the act.  In addition, lest one think this kind of tactic is uniquely American, it has been shown that “…British police have been inserting undercover officers into protest movements since 1968…” and in one case may have even caused a violent riot in order to thwart the plans of non-democratic movements.*** Lastly, lest one think this is a tactic only of present-day State powers, the church historian Eusebius, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, reports that the Roman emperor Maximinus II (reign: 308-313 C.E.) got Theotecnus to perform a fake ritual to condemn the Christians in Antioch so as to create a reason to persecute them, then forged memoirs of Pontus Pilate and Jesus to be taught in the Roman school system so as to discredit Christian belief, and even went so far as to hire someone to kidnap woman and, under threat of torture, get them to falsely confess that they were Christians and had seen the horrors of which Christians were accused! (Book 9). In these three cases then, we can see how the State will quite literally create the very corruption whether genuinely or falsely, that it will later parade as itself having caught and rooted out, all with the philosophy that there really was corruption but that it was hidden.

            The question then is why, why would State power go through so much trouble? Does it really believe that it is rooting out early potential corruption through intervention? Does it like playing games? Oddly enough, O’Russell’s film gives us the answer to this particular question quite well. The FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper) throughout the film is continually trying to ‘catch bigger and bigger fish’ in his scheme of bribing politicians and catching them in the act. He goes from pretty criminals, to municipal politicians, to senators, and, as is clear even to the head hustler, Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale) DiMaso continues to go over his head…all for the sake of glory. DiMaso wants to sweep the city streets clean of as many corrupt politicians as possible, not because he genuinely cares about the people, but because it will look good to the media, will get him a better job, and will move him on up in life. Is this not exactly the same reason with reference to our three historical examples? The FBI in their war on terror clearly wish to show to the public that they are needed, that they are doing a good job, and that the chase for the terrorists is real. The British police want to be able to show to the public that riots can get ‘out of hand’, that enforcement of the law is absolutely needed, that physical force is needed. The Roman emperor Maximinus II needed to show that his desire to root out Christians within Antioch was done out of a desire for the best interests of the people, that he was working for the stability and peace of the empire, and that his punishments, while cruel, were just.

            O’Russell’s film then quite well shows how State power often creates the corruption that it either genuinely believes to exist, or needs to exist, in order to then root out that very corruption to show to its subjects (and quite possibly to itself as well) that it is needed, that its power is justified, and that the glory it receives is well attributed. All of the following resulting from the belief that corruption is ultimately a hidden reality. Hidden precisely because we cannot see it, or because it lurks in the hearts of every person and it needs to be drawn out. It is here where Hannah Arendt and a theological understanding of perceiving corruption can show us how even within the fabric of the film American Hustle, we can see that the reason corruption is hidden is not because it is covered up, but precisely because we do not have the eyes to see it, we’ve been enculturated not to see it.

            O’Russell’s film quite comedically begins with the notice that, “Some of this actually happened.” Why is it so funny? The notice speaks to what we already know, but can now in a cynical way acknowledge, that movies based on true stories often manipulate, change, and omit important aspects of the history of the event in order to tell another story. Even more ‘meta’, if you wish, is the fact that during the entire movie while you think you are seeing the hidden reality of corruption (which is in fact created) you are quite openly being deceived about the history of the event, but you don’t see it as such because though you have eyes you do not see. It is here that Hannah Arendt’s concept of the ‘Banality of Evil’, introduced in her important work Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Books: 2006), is of most help. 

            Many have misunderstood Arendt’s concept as thinking that evil itself was banal, to the point of her even regretting using the phrase, the ‘Banality of Evil’. For our discussion it is quite apt. Amos Elon, in the introduction to the work, sums the concept up well as,

“Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for is possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet- and this is its horror!- it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world…Before Arendt, others had emphasized the  discrepancy between the personal mediocrity of monsters like Hitler or Stalin and the horrendous evil they unleashed on the world. Nearly everybody who attended the trials of mass killers after the war, some of them respected doctors and pharmacists, came away with the disconcerting impression that the killers looked pretty much like you and me.” (xiii-xv)

It is not that evil is banal, it is that often what we consider banal is evil. In Christian theological contexts however there is a way to see past our enculturation and socialization toward evils seen as banal, and to see them as evil, and that is called spiritual discernment. Not in the sense of discerning spirits, but of being able to see past the construction of something and see it within a wider spiritual framework. It is the ability to step-out of one’s socialization and be able to see things for what they are or should be. It is not merely the ability to recognize evil, but it take it as such. It is not the cynical ‘laugh-off’ of how evil things are, but to really be saddened and angered by them. Is this not exactly what DiMaso in American Hustle lacks? He lacked the ability to see past his own suspicions about the hearts of politicians- which lead him to believe in the concept of hidden unseen corruption- to discern the quite obviously seen corruption of an FBI working with two known criminals and creating more criminals through fraudulent enterprises. It remains hidden to him, not because it is unseen but precisely because he does not have the eyes to see it. His lack of discernment of his own corruption, his lack of ability for self-examination, his lust for glory and the desire to prove his worth, leads him to see corruption in everything else, but as hidden and unseen, and as something he needs to draw out by whatever means, thus creating the very corruption he claims to want to root out.

            To extend a metaphor given by Jesus (Matt. 7:3-5), the lack of spiritual discernment to see one’s own log of unhidden corruption  in one’s eye, leads one, not only to try to get the speck out of their brother’s eye, but to even throw wood shavings into another’s eyes, so that they may be the one to get it out- to prove their worth, in their lust for glory, that despite the laughs they get due to the log in their own eye, that they are in fact not stupid, but are needed. When the truth is that they are corrupt, but cannot see it, because of the very log in their own eye. It is not so much that ‘looks’ can be deceiving, so much as one’s ‘perception’ itself that can be deceiving.



*Most hilarious was the title in the Czech Republic Spinavý trik, which roughly translated is Monkey Business.

**For a good summary of his research check out: Schwartz, Daniel. “Q&A: The FBI’s role in ‘manufacturing’ terrorism – World – CBC News.” Interview Transscript. CBC News, May 2, 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2013/05/01/f-q-a-trevor-aaronson.html. 

***Monbiot, George. “Did an Undercover Cop Help Organise a Major Riot?” The Guardian, February 3, 2014, sec. Comment is free. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/03/undercover-officer-major-riot-john-jordan?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2.