American Hustle opens, with a classic scene of Irving affixing a hairpiece to his bald scalp and then constructing an elaborate comb over. We sense from the opening we are in the presence of someone who makes a great effort carefully to construct a false appearance. We are not who we appear to be. Alone with himself, before the bathroom mirror of the Plaza Hotel, Irving passes into a monitoring room where unseen others are in front of screens monitoring others. Then into the monitered room with a suitcase of money shoved toward an unsuspecting Mayor.
Western culture has wrestled with the conflict between appearance and reality at least since Plato squared off against the Sophists. Plato held firm, and so do we, to essential truth beneath the welter of appearances, although we might only indistinctly infer reality from the flickering shadows it cast on the walls of our cave. The sophists, however insisted that reality was appearance — whatever a person believes is true for him, or her. “Man is the measure of all things,” proclaimed Protagoras, the first and greatest of the Sophists. ”
American Hustle, hustling itself often requires the convincing creation of false appearances. Richey poses as a person who can get loans, or as a dealer in stolen art. Really he’s a con artist. “I became a con artist, for real” Irving as narrator declares with delicious irony. A con artist for real. A little like declaring: “This statement is false.” If it is false, then it’s true, but it’s true only if it’s false. American Hustle portrays a world where appearance and reality shift, conflict, and taunt us to tell which is which.
So Irving’s hustle is based on his false appearance. But Richey, the FBI undercover agent posing as an unsuspecting businessman desperate for a loan, also creates a false appearance. Undercover operations, government sponsored stings and scams require phony worlds, carefully constructed. Only the agent and his supervisors, know what’s real. Or do they? I recall vividly, as a special prosecutor, sending undercover agents out in the field to play their parts, and feeling a smug superiority as I watched the criminals scurry in my carefully constructed and completely phony world.
We’re never quite sure in American Hustle until the end, who or what is for real. Roles reverse, scenes that seemed to have one meaning on first viewing, when we’re carried along by the story, on second and third reviewing and reconsidering, take on a completely different reality and a very different meaning. Sydney, a midwestern stripper who exposed herself nightly, becomes Edith Greensley, a London aristocratic with royal banking connections. “My dream,” Sydney tells us, “more than anything was to become anyone else other than who I was.”
Is Sydney’s allegiance and love shifting from Irving, the con artist, to Richey the FBI agent with whom they’re forced to cooperate. Or is it all an act? “Maybe I do like him. Maybe I do like him a lot,” Sydney warns Irving. Who is conning whom? Who has the upper hand in the struggle between Irving and the FBI?
“People believe what they want to believe,” Irving warns, as he points to a fake Rembrandt hanging on a museum wall. “The guy who made this was so good that he’s made it real to everybody. Now who’s the master — the painter or the forger?
Is there any reality beneath the appearance? When it comes to right and wrong, to genuine goodness?
And then there’s the question of whether goodness itself can be real? “It’s all good,” purrs Teleggio, a mafia killer played with a quiet menace that Robert DeNiro captures uniquely in his cameo role. “I just hope the other part of this is all good. And real. Because we’re real. You know that. You deal with us, we’re a real organization.”
We feel the real threat behind that warning. So evil can be real, although good may be apparent.
The film itself as a film, a commercial product, mocks itself, and our reliance on historical truth: It begins by declaring “Some of this is true,” and ends after the credits with the standard disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and locations portrayed . . . are fictitious, and any similarity to or identification with the locations, name, character, or history of any person, product or entity is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”
Is nothing real? How about love? That’s the most uplifting Platonic spine of this fine film that may have won no Academy awards but deserves serious and sustained appreciation, must be the relationship between Irving and Sydney. But that’s for the next post.