Is American Hustle Based on a True Story?

‘American Hustle’ centers upon two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Posser, whose lives take a sudden turn when they are forced to work for Richie DiMaso. An overly ambitious FBI Agent, DiMaso coerces them to help him catch other criminals in return for their own freedom. Helmed by David O. Russell, it features the talents of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner in the leading roles.

The 2013 black comedy crime drama weaves an intriguing story, and the realistic and raw portrayal of the characters by the uber-talented bunch of actors keeps the audience glued to their seats. But is realism only limited to the characters? Just how true are the events of ‘American Hustle?’ Let us find out. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Is American Hustle a True Story?

Yes, ‘American Hustle’ is partially a true story, inspired by the FBI sting operation code-named ABSCAM in the late 70s and early 80s, which led to the bribery convictions of several public officials, including one US senator and six congressmen. The narrative is driven by a script penned by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer. However, they took certain creative liberties with the events and people involved to create a character-focused narrative. At the beginning of the film, the disclaimer that reads “Some of this actually happened” even hints at the fact that what people are about to see is only partly true.

The original story of the sting operation was first retold in a 1982 book titled ‘The Sting Man’ by Robert W. Greene, a journalist. But instead of focusing on the events of the sting operation, O. Russell chooses to focus on the people involved. “At the core of it to me it was a love story. I love romance, and I think romance is very powerful. To me that enchantment was everything. They’re not just criminals trying to steal things – they’re-they’re people like anybody else who want to live the magic that anybody else wants to live,” the director said in ‘The Making of American Hustle’ video by Annapurna Pictures.

Since the film does not directly attempt to document the events as they transpired in the sting operation, it gives a certain leeway as far as the characters and their relationships with each other are concerned. This includes but is not limited to, changing the names of the characters. Christian Bale plays con man Irving Rosenfeld, inspired by con artist Mel Weinberg, who originally aided the FBI in masterminding the sting.

Meanwhile, Amy Adams’ character Sydney Prosser, who is Rosenfeld’s partner, is clearly inspired by Weinberg’s lover, Evelyn Knight. Bradley Cooper slips into the role of a complex yet vulnerable federal agent, Richie DiMaso. Jennifer Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s wife, and is based on Cynthia Marie Weinberg. Lastly, Jeremy Renner takes on the reins of Carmine Polito, the Mayor of Camden, whose inspiration was Angelo Erricheti.

Besides the names, other details which are different in the film to a certain extent include facts like how Carmine Polito is selfless and only becomes involved in the scam for the wellbeing of the people of Camden, which was apparently in complete contradiction to his real-life counterpart. Moreover, Evelyn Knight, unlike her inspiration in the film, was reportedly not actually involved in ABSCAM at all. As per reports, Weinberg never took to a life of crime until he was an adult, which is wildly different from Bale’s Rosenfeld.

Much like the story, ‘American Hustle’ does not get preoccupied with the period it is supposed to take place in either. Though the interior scenes were spruced up to look like the late 70s and early 80s, much of the film takes place outside and relies on the characters, costumes, and cars to bring to the audience that authentic experience. The fact that David O. Russell captured ‘American Hustle’ on 35mm film also lends to the ambiance of the time period in the final cut.

There are also certain parts in ‘American Hustle’ which may have been included to increase the intensity of the drama between the three leading characters of Irving, Sydney, and Richie —  such as the relationship between Richie DiMaso and Sydney Prosser, even if the latter only intended it as a deception. “…I find love triangles to be very dynamic. And I wanted the stakes of the film to be as intense from an emotional standpoint, a personal standpoint, as they were from the procedural standpoint,” David further explained in ‘The Making of American Hustle.’

Though much of the actual story of ABSCAM was changed, through ‘American Hustle,’ David O. Russell presents that the intensity of emotions determines just how far people are willing to go when they want to change either themselves or something about their circumstances in life and that sometimes, the need to be better and one’s own selfish desires are mutually exclusive. As Amy Adams puts it perfectly in the aforementioned video – “Everybody’s trying to actually make themselves better; they’re just doing it wrong.”

Read More: Where Was American Hustle Filmed?