Few things are as all-American as a well-organized scam. If nothing else, Philly native David O. Russell’s upcoming film, American Hustle, proves just that thanks to its “fictionalized” account of one of the most shocking schemes ever to be exposed to the American public: Abscam. And it all went down right here in the Philly area.
Set for a December 18 release, Russell’s followup to Silver Linings Playbook takes a page from Ted Demme’s Blow strategy and launches us back into the seedy 1970s, where conmen abound and chutzpah is king. Starring the likes of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams, American Hustle is already receiving Oscar buzz that shows no sign of slowing down come awards season.
Set primarily in New Jersey, Russell’s newest release spins an altered account of the FBI’s “Abdul Scam,” or Abscam, which nabbed a dozen government officials for accepting bribes in connection with the FBI’s efforts. Among the convicted politicians were longtime Senator Harrison A. Williams of New Jersey, six House of Representatives members ranging in location from Florida to Pennsylvania, and several members of the Philadelphia City Council, among others.
Organized around a fabricated Middle Eastern sheikh named Karim Abdul Rahman, Abscam essentially entailed US politicians accepting unsolicited bribes in exchange for favors like political asylum, money laundering, and investment schemes. A multi-layered con to be sure, which is why the FBI employed the services of noted conman Melvin Weinberg (played by Christian Bale in the film). Reportedly barely under control at the time of the operation, Weinberg accepted payment of upwards of $150,000 for his involvement in the stings.
But by the time the public found out about the operation in 1980, Weinberg’s part was long over. Today, at 90, Weinberg reportedly lives in Florida and remains unrepentant about his scammy past. Today, a legal debate still rages around the ethics of what amounts to the FBI implementing one of the largest cons in American history..
As for American Hustle, though, despite its local setting, Russell was unable to film in the area due to caps on film-tax credits in Jersey and total lack of a tax credit system here in Philly. Instead, Russell packed up his crew and shipped off to Massachusetts, where there is no tax cap.
Not surprising, given Russell’s topic for the film. After all, he must have already known that no one can run a scam like the American government.