American Hustle: Entrapment

Where to start? I guess at the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, where the snake, an agent of the Sovereign, convinces Eve to violate the Law and eat the apple in order to appreciate and enjoy a life that the Sovereign had prohibited. So Eve plucked the apple, passed it to Adam and they ate.

But the garden was wired.

An angry Sovereign confronted Adam, demanding “What have you done?” And Adam, in classic heroic male fashion, instantly cooperated and gave up his supplier and beloved: “The woman that thou gavest to be with me, she gave me the apple and I did eat.”

So the Sovereign confronted Eve. And her reply: “The Serpeant beguiled me and I did eat.” This, the first entrapment defense of record, failed miserably. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, Adam was condemned to toil painfully, Eve to suffer the pains of childbirth, and all of us condemned to die.

Fast forward to American Hustle. Irving, an expert con man, with a carefully constructed persona, falls for Sidney, a woman scratching out a life for herself who joins Irving in scamming people out of finders fees for loans they have no intention of producing. Richey, an FBI agent, investigating the fraudulent scheme by posing as a man in need of a loan, busts Sidney.

But Sidney doesn’t give up Irving. She writhes alone in a cell. Nor does Richey abandon Sidney. Together they agree to work off their case and reveal corrupt schemes of colleagues. . .

After Eden, the entrapment defense rarely succeeded. Until Sorrells. It was during Prohibition. A federal undercover agent posing as a tourist, struck up conversation with a local. The agent “discovered” they had both served in World War I, and exchanged war stories. Would his newfound buddy get him some booze. Initially, the target refused. More war stories, a new friendship began to bud. Booze? Declined. Finally the unsuspecting target, Sorrells, feeling sorry for his new “friend” offered him some alcohol.


The United States Supreme Court unanimously threw out the conviction, agreeing there was entrapment, but split over why. The majority of the Court would focus us on the defendant himself. Was he predisposed to commit the crime? Was he ready and willing, and only lacked the opportunity which the Government supplied? Measured by that standard, there was no evidence Sorrells was predisposed. The Government had manufactured a criminal. And that person was entrapped.

But Irving, the main character and narrator of American Hustle routinely swindled targets out of finders fees for loans he had no intention of producing. And Sidney, his new found colleague in crime, posing as Edith, a British aristocrat with London banking connections, had elevated Irv’s swindle to a higher level.

Richey the government agent had clearly not created any criminals. He had simply revealed ongoing criminality. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority view, neither Richey nor Edith were even arguably entrapped.

Mayor Carmine Polito, however, was a more difficult case. But that’s for a future chapter.

American Hustle

If you haven’t yet seen American Hustle but you intend to, either before or after the Academy Awards this coming Sunday, do not read this series of posts — yet. They may well ruin this movie for you. On the other hand, if you have seen it once, or think you’ve seen it, I hope to convince you in these next few blog posts that you never really saw this great film — you can’t have. Only when you already know the whole story, and watch the characters struggle to release themselves from their respective binds — only then can you begin to really appreciate American Hustle, this time for the first time.

The well-regarded film critic Jeffrey Lyons recently rejected American Hustle for “best picture” by declaring that he had long since lost interest in ABSCAM. But that comment fails to realize that although American Hustle is set in the era of the FBI’s famous ABSCAM investigation, it transcends it.

The film raises timeless legal and moral questions; it offers a deeply moving and well motivated love story; it explores the human condition — the conflict between who we are and how we choose to appear — it addresses the legitimate limits of government power, intrusions on privacy, entrapment, and so much more. Tragic in spots, hysterically funny in others, brilliantly acted, directed, and written, this deeply truthful and yet fanciful love story contains a classic “Hollywood Ending” reminiscent of an earlier era.

Lines from the movie merit repeating, themes from the film merit considering and discussing, characters merit recalling, scenes merit analyzing, and questions merit discussing. Future blog posts shall do this. But for now, I post this, especially for those film fans who want to watch the Oscars prepared to root for the best.