American Hustle: (Re)Shaping the 70s

By Christian Bland

As an ensemble drama-comedy, American Hustle is vibrant, hilarious and utterly engaging. As a history lesson? Less so. Remarkably, much of the Abscam controversy was real – but the love quadrilateral? Not so much. Yet does David O’Russell deserve criticism for this? Surely cinema should take liberties with ‘reality’ – after all, who would actually want to watch a two-hour pale reflection of everyday life? Though it may be ‘fake’, this nostalgically re-imagined version of the 1970s deserves to be analysed on its own terms, as a love-letter to an era that has never felt more relevant than in today’s faceless video-age. 

As an artistic portrait of con-artists, Hustle takes identity loosely. Every character is highly self-conscious, but about their carefully constructed alter-egos, not their ‘true’ selves. Indeed, lead couple Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) don’t appear to love each other nearly as much as the faux relationship they created to con upper-crust clients in ‘78. There is something impossibly romantic yet quite resonant about the depiction of a time in which it was fully possible to assume fake public identities, an age of espionage and detective-work recalling events of the 21st Century but setting them inside a refreshingly smaller world. Teasingly, we only occasionally get a fully inside perspective of these forged identities, seeing only glimpses of them through the eyes of Adams and Bale’s ‘real’ personalities, an unstable FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and Rosenfeld’s histrionic wife (Jennifer Lawrence).

O’Russell offers his audience the highest cinematic pleasure of escaping into a romantic fantasy that appears entirely realistic. 

Put together it’s all brilliantly elusive, O’Russell plays on this to gradually lure us towards the addictively nostalgic centre of his beautifully unique vision. Hustle may run at well over two hours and fly through an astonishing amount of material, but because it all comes back to this glorious 1970s environment there’s still something very comforting and effortlessly entertaining about it.

O’Russell’s narrative, however, is more than matched by a stunningly stylish presentation. Very few films are shot in any sense that could be called ‘cool’, but the semi-ironic panorama of excess, corruption and classical panache which Linus Sandgren brings to the table fully belongs to that exclusive club. The heavy exposure and saturation can feel like a character in itself, bringing the faded 70s pastels to vivid life in a look resembling a jaded but highly treasured memory. Unsurprisingly, Danny Elfman’s complementary soundtrack is also packed with references to period hits from ‘I Feel Love’ to ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, as well as a host of new compositions that recall 70s styles. Together, such choices are overwhelmingly nostalgic – bringing a whimsically romantic edge to the film, even when its script is at its most cuttingly sarcastic.

Despite this, the enviable costumes of Hustle might still be its central, unforgettable component. Shapeless clothes and clashing prints create a metallic disco style that highlight the exuberance and glamour it brings to the political narrative. Such a free-flowing style also parables how these characters are perpetually reinventing themselves throughout the tale, giving a lavish feel to its core narrative. By mixing these elements of 70s culture into his retrospective vision, O’Russell offers his audience the highest cinematic pleasure of escaping into a romantic fantasy that appears entirely realistic. 

Though its plot and script are certainly entertaining enough in isolation, it is the world of early-postmodern America these events take place in that makes Hustle such a rare treat. Nostalgia is dominant in the exuberant wardrobes, hairstyles, music and cinematography and it makes O’Russell’s best film tick. Hopefully, his upcoming period drama will follow firmly in this vein and build a world worthy of exhibiting its storyline.

Image: Jennifer Lawrence Films via Flickr

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