American Hustle is a very good joint from David O. Russell, director of the equally good Three Kings and The Fighter.
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980s, I was vaguely aware of ABSCAM in the news, the FBI investigation on which American Hustle is loosely based. The investigation, first reported in the media in 1980, led to the conviction of six U.S. Congressmen, including two from Pennsylvania, a New Jersey Senator, and several members of the Philadelphia City Council. John Murtha, another U.S. Congressman from western Pennsylvania was never indicted, but was caught on tape telling undercover FBI operatives that he was “not interested” in the $50,000 in cash offered to him.
Russell’s film captures the clothing, the hair, and the culture of area, with even some references to real people. I like, for instance, the mob lawyer in the film whose name is “Alphonse Simone,” an apparent nod to Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer Robert Simone.
Bobby Simone – not the NYPD Blue character – was the Philadelphia mob’s top criminal defense lawyer for much of the 1980s, most notably defending reputed crime boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo. Simone was accused by the government of jury tampering, and was eventually convicted in 1992 in a mob-related racketeering and extortion case. He served 3 years in prison. The Philadelphia mob was largely in control of Atlantic City’s casino operations, which is a plot point in American Hustle.
Simone had previously represented Angelo Bruno, boss of the Philadelphia mob family from 1959 until he was gunned down in south Philly in 1980. There is scarcely a mob in Raleigh and, except for street gangs, barely organized crime. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the mob was a very powerful and violent part of life in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Bruno was killed in 1980 in a mob hit; Antonio “Tony Bananas” Caponigro, who ordered the hit on Bruno, was killed a few weeks later; Philip “Chicken Man” Testa, who succeeded Bruno, was killed a year later (Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City,” “Well they blew up the Chicken man in Philly last night…”).
And then came Nicky Scarfo, who was among the most violent crime bosses Philadelphia ever saw . In 1988, Scarfo, represented by Simone, was convicted Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO), including for nine murders, and sentenced to 45 years in prison. He is 84, and resides at Federal Medical Center, Butner, North Carolina. He’ll die in prison.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s obituary notes, Bobby Simone vehemently denied that he had done anything illegal in representing the mob, and insisted that “he was the target of a government vendetta. But he also was quick to admit that his lifestyle – a penchant for gambling, nightlife, and a good glass of liquor – often created problems that his courtroom skills couldn’t solve.”
My uncle, who passed away in 2011, worked for Bobby Simone’s brother, who owned a microfilming company located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. During the summer, I would work as a microfilmer at the company to save money for college. Rumor had it that many of the government contracts for microfilming that the company won were the result of kickbacks and bribes, especially those contracts the company had to microfilm New Jersey county records. Bobby Simone did indeed have a penchant for gambling: I remember when I was very young my parents, who were not rich, went out one evening with my uncle and the Simones to an Atlantic City casino where over the course of a few hours, they watched as Bobby Simone gambled $10,000, which at the time probably a third of my dad’s annual salary as a public school teacher.