“American Hustle”: A Long-Form Movie

December 12, 2013 9:53 PM

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The last thing I scribbled in my notebook at the end of a screening of “American Hustle” (which opens tomorrow) was, “Wish it were the magazine article that you’d read and said, that would make a great movie.” David O. Russell’s new movie falls into a distinctive genre that I’d call long-form cinema: a story based on reporting (e.g., “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) that departs from the underlying factuality while still relying on it for import and affect. It’s an interesting contrast to a related genre, the pisser, which, as I once described, involves “something the very existence of which is amazing, and which trades on a jolting disjunction of scale, where tiny or intimate events prove to have a vast and disproportionate historical power.”

“American Hustle” is near the hinge: it unfolds the day-to-day, intimate, and romantic doings that went on behind the scenes and beneath the headlines of the real-life Abscam operation of 1978, focussing on the small-time crooks who brought down relatively big-time politicians (a mayor and a handful...

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