Was American Hustle’s Abscam Operation a Real FBI Operation?

Directed by David O. Russell, ‘American Hustle’ is a 2013 black comedy movie with a star-studded cast. It follows the story of a skilled con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who gets caught up with the FBI and is forced to run a series of sting operations for them. Aided by his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), he works with an overtly ambitious FBI Agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper)—the three start by planning cons to catch other low-level con artists like themselves.

However, eventually, the trio’s operation grows, and soon they find high-profile Congress members and dangerous mobsters involved. Their sting operation is dubbed Abscam Operation because of a fake Arab Sheikh that forms the basis of their long-con. The operation is just eccentric enough to make the audience wonder if such a plan could actually work in real life. If you want to know more about the Abscam Operation and its ties to reality, here is everything you should know. SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Abscam Operation: Was it Real?

Yes, ‘American Hustle’ took inspiration for its Abscam Operation plotline from a real FBI Operation of the same name. In the movie, Irving comes up with the idea to use an Arab Sheik as a honeypot to attract other con artists. Richie, the FBI Agent, poses as the advisor to a Sheikh who is an investor of Irving’s. The premise of the trap is simple, a Sheik looking to invest would make for an easy target for scammers to take advantage of. Once the scammers approach them and start doing business with them, Richie can catch the scammers in the act.

At first, Irving only uses this idea to trick some con artists into fulfilling his end of the bargain with the FBI. But when the opportunity to bust corrupt politicians presents itself, Richie jumps at it. The con steadily grows bigger and bigger until it becomes a full-fledged FBI Sting Operation called Abscam. The real-life Abscam Operation started in 1978 and became public knowledge in early 1980. In a series of sting operations, the FBI worked on catching felons and criminals that were involved in forgery and art theft.

Similar to the movie, the investigation led to the eventual unveiling and arrest of corrupt politicians and one mayor of New Jersey named Angelo J. Errichetti. Like Irving, the FBI also recruited the help of Mel Weinberg, a conman that offered his swindling expertise in exchange for probation. The sting operation had made for quite a spectacle in the late 70s, becoming one of the most extensive operations of its time. A 1981 book called ‘The Sting Man’ was written by Robert W. Greene that explored Mel Weinberg’s life and his involvement with the FBI.

The events of the movie’s Abscam Operations are based on a real FBI Operation, but with quite a few changes. Christian Bale’s character, Irving Rosenfeld, shares many similarities with Mel Weinberg, with both men showcasing streaks of fraudulence early on in their lives. Like Irving, his off-screen counterpart had a scammy loan business where he secured a hefty nonrefundable fee upfront before making fake promises of loan grants to people needing big money. After a few years of his con-based lifestyle, Weinberg was caught by the feds in 1977 and ended up helping them run sting operations.

Mel Weinberg// Image Credit: HistoryvsHollywood /YouTube

Nevertheless, unlike Irving, the FBI paid Weinberg pretty handsomely for his work. Additionally, in the movie, the con artist’s partner in crime, and mistress, Sydney Prosser, plays a significant role in the events and decisions made during their investigation. She is also romantically involved with Richie and ultimately uses their relationship as a con against him. On the other hand, Sydney’s real-life counterpart, Evelyn Knight, never had much involvement in the FBI investigation in real life.

Similarly, Rosalyn— Irving’s wife— has a relationship with a mobster in the movie, which almost ruins the entire Abscam Operation. In real life, Weinberg’s then-wife, Marie Weinberg, did not get involved in the FBI investigations in any way. Lastly, Jeremy Renner’s character, Carmine, the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, is loosely based on Angelo Errichetti. Like Carmine, Errichetti was an influential politician of his time who had a particular appeal among low-income crowds. Errichetti, too like Carmine, was arrested during the Abscam Operation.

Ultimately, the Abscam Operation though an actual operation done by the FBI, differs from the one portrayed in the movie in some places. The base idea is the same with agents posing as Arab Sheikhs to weed out corrupt officials and criminals— yet, ‘American Hustle’ paints the people involved in this scandal in an intentionally different light, one that is in accordance with the David O. Russell directorial’s narrative.

The real-life Abscam Operations yielded much of the same results as the movie. Still, the way ‘American Hustle’ portrays it as a single FBI agent’s sole ambition, though helpful to the film’s overall messaging, does not hold much historical accuracy. The actual Abscam Operation was a department-wide affair. Besides, it created a lot of controversy surrounding entrapment issues and ultimately changed the rules of undercover operations within the FBI. Furthermore, in reality, the Abscam Operation, on top of all its previously stated eccentricity, even involved a flamboyant party on a yacht— a wild detail that failed to make it into the movie.

Read More: Is American Hustle Based on a True Story?