January 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

American Hustle (2013) directed by David Russell is a highly satisfying snarky drama, loosely based on truth, about a con man engaged by the FBI to assist in the “Abscam” sting. Russell has a unique voice, and reminds me of (dare I say?) directors like Frank Capra, who were able to be auteurs within the dehumanizing Hollywood studio system. We have fewer of these working today; Steven Soderburgh is one, while Martin Scorsese is more of a John Huston-like outsider who is not really at peace with the system. One of the pleasures in thinking about the movie afterwards (how many movies do we think about afterwards?) was detecting where Russell chose to diverge from actual events, and why: stronger roles for women, more ridiculousness and vanity on the part of the FBI, more humanity and remorse for the con artist: all manipulations, but good ones.

The Great Dissent (2013) by Thomas Healy is a brief, entertaining history of Justice Holmes’ arc towards his memorable dissent in Abrams in which he first proposed the “marketplace of ideas” trope. Healy’s competent and thoughtful research highlights the degree to which random personal factors contribute to political outcomes: Holmes gravitated towards younger, warmer, more radical Jewish men, like Harold Laski and Felix Frankfurter, and these lobbied the rather cold-blooded and brutal justice towards recognition of a right of free speech. Although the book starts when Holmes is in his seventies, it gives some useful back-story: the man who in The Common Law posited that shipwreck survivors will naturally push each other off a plank had been shot three times in the Civil War (on three different occasions). Anyone who survives three bullets is naturally going to be rather hard, whether Holmes or Fifty Cent.