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American Casino

A scattershot approach doesn't help us understand the whole mortgage mess

The economic meltdown that dominated the news last year was rooted in pretty complicated financial activities spread across several complicated industries that implicated everybody from home-buyers in Arizona to mayors in small Swedish towns. I know this because I watched a lot of TV newsmagazine and documentary post-mortems. With the help of many graphs, first-person accounts and useful analogies, I now have a layman's uneasy grasp on a crisis that even industry insiders categorized as often unfathomable. So while I may not be a Wall Street whiz, I am up-to-speed on programs about the crisis. Heed my warning: American Casino is more confusing than illuminating.

Directed by Leslie Cockburn, and co-written with her husband, Andrew (both vets of investigative TV shows such as 60 Minutes and CBS Reports), the documentary has good intentions. Its principal aim is to show how the unregulated "instruments" making Wall Street rich impacted folks at the other end of the ladder, primarily through the encouragement of sub-prime mortgages.

Cockburn mostly focuses on a couple of sad cases in Baltimore (a city in crisis long before the current meltdown), while still trying to sketch the broader, top-down situation that reputedly led these folks to their current miseries. But the film's explanations of bond ratings and complex loans are mystifying. (You can't use one piece of insider jargon to define another.) The film draws no comprehensible links between, say, the super-rich guy interviewed in Malibu who made zillions betting that many borrowers would default and the granny in Baltimore whose mortgage payment doubled. And there is simply far too much visual filler (computer screens, boarded-up homes).

In the last reel, we travel with no preamble to a lovely California suburb where $800,000 homes are in foreclosure. Surely, these weren't the result of the urban poor being tricked into "reverse redlining" mortgages? But we never hear from any of these homeowners, nor get an explanation for this part of the crisis. We do visit with a pest-control guy who helps keep the abandoned swimming pools free of assorted vermin. But after seeing the minister in Baltimore who is now homeless, what are we to make of "lost" luxury pools large enough to drive vehicles into?

Cockburn starts with a worthy premise -- but her tendency to shoehorn in lots of snapshots from a deeply complex, global crisis decades in the making robs the work of its power to move us. If hours of explanation can't make sense of the meltdown, perhaps Cockburn's 90 minutes would have been better spent fleshing out the Baltimore stories? How did the seemingly on-the-ball schoolteacher get into -- and undone by -- a messy mortgage? A well-told human drama about the little guy can be worth a thousand shots of empty swimming pools and CEOs dissembling before Congress. Starts Fri., Sept. 11. Harris

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