What really happened on Wall Street?

Posted: October 01, 2009

"American Casino" covers the same Wall Street meltdown as "Capitalism: A Love Story," but has a completely different personality.

It may be a little too Jack Webb for the masses, but there is value to its sober, just-the-facts approach.

The old-school, reportorial style comes from journalist and author Andrew Cockburn, longtime national-affairs expert who has written about Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld and here probes the origins of the near-collapse of the economy.

Cockburn (along with wife and filmmaker Leslie) was already documenting the shaky foundation of the mortgage-securities industry when the whole thing collapsed, taking big investment banks, several trillion dollars and six million jobs with it.

The Cockburns were collecting evidence showing that Wall Street was making ridiculous bets on worthless securities tied to inflated housing values - hence the movie's title.

In "American Casino," they display that evidence, and the best stuff comes from a Deep Throat insider (photographed in shadow, with his voice distorted) who shows just how culpable the investment banks were.

They either knew or suspected the mortgages underneath their complex securities were dicey, the source says, and built them in a way to disguise the weaknesses. For this, they needed to enlist the aid of companies who vetted the securities, but that turned out to be astonishingly easy. In the movie's most appalling revelation, Deep Throat reveals the ratings agencies actually sent the due diligence paperwork back to the investment banks, asking them to fill it out themselves.

"American Casino" reports that when supply of viable mortgages dried up, Wall Street fed the mortgage-securities gold rush by pursuing nonviable mortgages with a vigor. The documentary follows civil-liberties lawyers in Baltimore who are suing banks for "reverse red-lining," goading buyers into adjustable rate mortgages so insanely complex (and usurious) that not even mortgage counselors could understand them.

We meet hardworking Baltimore residents who eagerly invest in their first homes, then lose them when the rate triples in just a few months.

Should they have known better?

If you want to tell them that while they're standing at the curb next to their belongings, be my guest.

Should WE have known better?

A question to ponder as we reconstitute the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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