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“American Casino”–Doc Investigates Roots of the Subprime Mortgage Meltdown and Tells the Stories of Its Victims

StorySeptember 02, 2009
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The subprime mortgage meltdown was at the heart of what’s been called the Great Recession of 2008. It caused more than a million Americans to lose their homes and brought Wall Street to its knees. A new documentary opening today in New York takes on the subprime crisis, tracking its roots on Wall Street and Washington and profiling some of its victims, mainly African American families who lost their homes. We play highlights and speak with filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The economy has a long way to recover from what’s been called the Great Recession of 2008. At the heart of the meltdown was the subprime mortgage crisis that caused more than a million Americans to lose their homes and brought Wall Street to its knees.

A new documentary that’s opening today in New York takes on the subprime collapse, tracking its roots on Wall Street and Washington and profiling some of its victims, mainly African American families who lost their homes.

American Casino is directed by Leslie Cockburn, who wrote and produced the documentary with her husband, journalist and author Andrew Cockburn. They join us today in our firehouse studio.

But we first will turn to an excerpt of the film, which begins by looking at how deregulation of the financial sector laid the groundwork for the economic meltdown. This is American Casino.

    MICHAEL GREENBERGER: To understand why this is like a gambling casino, you have to understand what’s at stake here. On a December evening, December 15th, 2000, around 7:00, Phil Gramm, Republican senator of Texas, then chair of the Senate Finance Committee, walked to the floor of the Senate and introduced a 262-page bill as a rider to the 11,000-page appropriation bill, which excluded from regulation the financial instruments that are probably most at the heart of the present meltdown.

    He not excluded them from all federal regulation, but he excluded them from state regulation as well, which is important because these instruments could be viewed to be gambling instruments, where you’re betting on whether people will or will not pay off their loans. And he announced at the time that this measure would be a boon to the American economy and be a boon to Wall Street, because they would be freed of any supervision in this regard. And that lack of supervision freed Wall Street to essentially shoot itself in both feet.

    DAVID ATTASANI: I worked for four companies on Wall Street. Three of them don’t exist anymore. I don’t think anything is really permanent in life. I mean, sure, my grandfather worked for the same company for, you know, twenty-some-odd years in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, maybe thirty years. I don’t know. But he worked for the same company his whole life. Nothing’s permanent anymore. The stock market goes south, the banks going out of business. It’s just the way people in America live. I don’t think anything I’ve done propelled or inhibited it. I don’t think. No, I don’t feel any responsibility for this mess at all.

    MARK PITTMAN: It really started getting heated in 2004, 2005. Mortgage rates kept dropping for prime mortgages, you know, the ones that most people get, and that made the others much more valuable, because they offered much more yield. When you have that much cash flow that’s extra, you can siphon off a whole lot more fees, and that is — you know, it’s all about money. Subprime in 2005 and 2006, the issuance was about $800 billion total. It’s a river of cash. $800 billion will buy a lot of houses and do a lot of things, and you could tap into that. Your fees on that might be four percent. OK, four percent of — $32 billion.

    DAVID ATTASANI: If there’s more demand for homes and more people securitizing mortgages, we would sell more bonds. And it could be a billion to two billion to five billion, you know, to ten billion a month.

    MARK PITTMAN: This is a Lehman Brothers bond done in early 2006. If you look here, you can tell how many mortgages are delinquent sixty days or delinquent more than ninety days, how many — how much money they’ve already lost and how much real estate they’ve already taken back that’s in foreclosure. That’s real estate they’ve already taken back and not sold yet. As you can see, you know, this is not going well. They’ve got $800 million, and, you know, they’ve got 31 percent that’s more than ninety days delinquent.

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Dr. Greenspan, you had an ideology, you had a belief, that free, competitive — and this is your statement: “I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies. We’ve tried regulation. None meaningfully worked.” That was your quote.

    You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. And now our whole economy is paying its price. Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?

    ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to. To exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not. And what I’m saying to you is, yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’ve been very distressed by that fact.

    But if I may, may I just finish an answer to the question previously posed?

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality —-

    ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right. It was not working.

    ALAN GREENSPAN: That it had a -— precisely. No, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I’ve been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I want to thank you on behalf of the committee.

    MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Alan Greenspan was the foremost proponent of these derivative products, credit derivatives, which are now at the heart of the meltdown, of them not being subject to regulation. And his theory was as follows, that he believed these instruments afforded banks the ability to move risk out to the economy — in other words, to exchange their risk of making mortgages and having to worry whether people would pay the mortgages and creating financial products that would invite the rest of the financial world to participate in that risk. His theory was, well, this isn’t making matters worse; it’s making matters better, because banks, when they make all these mortgages, won’t be subject to forfeitures.

    Unfortunately, what we have seen in our most recent history of this credit crisis is, yes, it spread the risk through the economy and made everybody subject to that risk, not just the banks. The banks got so cocky, because they thought they were passing the risk off, that the discipline of being worried about whether somebody could pay their mortgage disappeared, and they made as many mortgages as they could make. They weren’t interested in whether the loans would be paid back. That was somebody else’s problem, translated through these credit derivatives and other unregulated instruments. They just wanted to do the transactions, make as many of these mortgages as they could. Every time they signed somebody up for a mortgage, they brought huge amounts of money in, and that’s the way they profited.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Greenberger, the former director for trading and markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in an excerpt from the film American Casino . It’s opening today in New York. The film, directed by Leslie Cockburn, who co-produced it with her husband Andrew Cockburn. They’re joining us here in our firehouse studio.

It’s nice to have you in New York.



AMY GOODMAN: That quote, Leslie, of Alan Greenspan is quite amazing, as he’s being challenged by Henry Waxman.

LESLIE COCKBURN: Yes. Well, when people hear it, they just find it extraordinary that this man could reduce the collapse of several American cities, in terms of, you know, the millions of foreclosures, that he could reduce it to saying that it was a flaw in the model.

AMY GOODMAN: That he had believed in for forty years.

LESLIE COCKBURN: Yes, and that it had worked very well for forty years, so he was just surprised that there was this flaw in the model, I mean, taking no responsibility whatsoever for what’s happened. And yet, it was Alan Greenspan who very clearly was the biggest advocate in Washington for what’s called spreading the risk, i.e., that the banks would pass on the risk to all the rest of us, which is exactly what’s happened. And Alan Greenspan thought that was a great idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about deregulation, Andrew Cockburn.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, deregulation — we start the film, I mean, with sort of the final descent into disaster from December 2000, when Phil Gramm, acting on behalf of — it was basically a bill written by a bunch of Wall Street lawyers — smuggled a bill into the appropriations bill at 7:00 in the evening on December 15th, when they were all thinking about going home for Christmas, basically saying — making it illegal to regulate, among other things, credit default swaps, which were — had been considered —- which are, you know, basically gambling. I mean, it’s a bet.

AMY GOODMAN: Making it illegal.

ANDREW COCKBURN: To regulate them. Making it illegal, impossible for state -—

AMY GOODMAN: To regulate them, not just keeping them deregulated, but making it illegal.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Yeah, specifically saying that state and local — you know, state governments couldn’t go after them under the gambling laws, because lots of states have gambling laws, and these very much — this really, you know, fits the bill for a — as an instrument for gambling. And that’s what they put in. So, that was the crucial act of deregulation.

But there’s a long and hallowed history which went to, you know, create this disaster, you know, the end of the — you know, all the other various other Depression-era reforms that had been put in place, which were all cheered on by both parties, by all administrations. But we started with that, because that’s what — the December 2000 act was what really sent us over the cliff.

AMY GOODMAN: Leslie Cockburn, you began making this film in January of 2008.

LESLIE COCKBURN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: This is before all of the economic meltdown, the obvious effects of it.


AMY GOODMAN: What made you start American Casino?

LESLIE COCKBURN: Well, there were a lot of things going on at that time. One, there had been a mini crash in 2007 in August of financials, and that tipped us off that there was something very serious going on. Also, two hedge funds of Bear Stearns collapsed in 2007. Leverage — if you looked at the market leverage, which means borrowing, was completely out of control by the banks, the investment banks.

At the other end of the scale, already there were foreclosures on every courthouse steps in America. You could go and find that houses were on the block. We went over from — we live in Washington. We went to Baltimore and found that houses were being sold every three minutes on the courthouse steps. So it was time to do something.

And we knew also that lawmakers in Washington were terrified, that —- you know, that there were serious problems underlying this crisis, and it wasn’t going to go away.

AMY GOODMAN: Your scenes of the auctions on the courthouse steps in Baltimore are amazing. I mean, it almost looks like there’s no one there buying. It’s just the auctioneer.

LESLIE COCKBURN: Exactly. All those properties were going back to the banks.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Yeah, the one guy you see in the auction scene, the one apparent bidder, he’s actually on behalf of a vulture, a foreclosure vulture, who buys up houses, you know, at rock-bottom prices.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you see the auctioneer and his sidekick.


AMY GOODMAN: And you see one guy in jeans and sneakers. I think it was sneakers, I’m not sure.

ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Holding a phone.


AMY GOODMAN: And he was making decisions, and he would respond to the auctioneer on the steps.

ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right. That’s the market.

AMY GOODMAN: Buying up the houses.

ANDREW COCKBURN: But most of them go back to the banks.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to play more from American Casino, that’s opening tonight here in New York. Our guests are Leslie Cockburn, who directed American Casino, and her husband Andrew Cockburn, who co-produced American Casino. He is the author of the book Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.

This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Losing Our Home” by Rock Off Crew, written and performed by three eleven— to fourteen-year-olds from inner-city Baltimore, featured in the movie American Casino, which is directed by Leslie Cockburn, co-produced by Andrew Cockburn.

Andrew, talk about these musicians.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, Baltimore is a great musical city, and when we started to cover what was going on there in terms of foreclosures and the whole crisis, we figured that people were probably doing music about this. So we looked and, sure enough — I mean, actually, I think we collected sixty tracks of people talking from the inner city about various aspects of it. And these, the Rock Off Crew, they’re from —- actually, they got together in an after-school program for inner-city youth, ages eleven to fourteen. And, you know, they made this, came up with this heartbreaking track. I mean, we play two other tracks by other people in the film, but -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to turn to another excerpt of American Casino that deals with the targeting of minority communities in Baltimore. This clip begins with Robert Strupp of the Community Law Center in Baltimore.

    ROBERT STRUPP: There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that minorities were put into these loans and deceived and misled into unsuitable loan products. Some of the deception that home buyers found themselves in is both at — when they got to closing, and they were being told right up until the loan closing that their payment was going to be, say, a thousand dollars a month, and then they get to the closing, and they’re sitting and they’re looking at the documents, and all of a sudden it says your monthly payment is going to be $1,500 a month or $1,800, whatever the much higher number is. The confusion is that they weren’t being told that they were going to have to escrow for the real estate taxes or the hazard insurance on their home.

    And on the flip side of that, we also have people who were being told when they refinanced their loans that we could get them a lower payment. What they weren’t being told is that where they were currently paying the taxes and insurance, under the new loan they would not.

    HOME BUYER: So the purchase price was [$135,000], and then the interest rate is 11.125. So it was 108 and twenty-seven. The large loan is 6.6 percent. And then, on this one, this is a smaller loan, the second one. This is the one that’s 11.125. And as far as I know, it hasn’t — you know, it hasn’t adjusted yet.

    ROBERT STRUPP: We got so lax in the way in which we conduct these closings that they were being conducted at people’s homes by notaries. You could do a real estate closing by meeting this notary in the parking lot of a shopping center and do it on the hood of your car. There’s nobody to ask questions of. There was — the thickness of these documents is like a phone book in any given city, and there’s no time for the borrower to even be able to digest what they’re being asked to sign.

    And in very many cases, they’re doing this late on their way home from work, so they don’t have to take off from work. They have to pick up their children at daycare. And, you know, otherwise there’s late fee penalties in that. There’s just not an opportunity for so many of the folks, who would not be in a position to understand what they were signing, to do so.

    And there are even folks who are intelligent and trained as lawyers and in the real estate profession who admit that they don’t understand some of the jargon that’s in these documents, so how can you expect the average person to? It’s just — it’s a myth to say that, well, these documents were signed voluntarily by people who knew what they were signing. I don’t buy that.

    LISA EVANS: These loans are incredibly complex. In fact, we’ve looked at loan documents here, and counselors here will look at them and go — they can’t figure them out, and they’ve been looking at loan documents for years in their lives. And there’s a clause somewhere in it that they cannot get adjusted. — there is a clause somewhere in it that they can’t — it adjusts at this. It’s based on a certain rate. It’s tied to some interest rate or some Treasury note of whatever that is very complex. Adjustable-rate mortgages that only adjust one way, upward.

    CARA STRETCH: And how much is the payment on the first?

    LISA EVANS: Even when a housing counselor was part of the process, frequently families would get to the closing table and suddenly were faced with a loan product that they didn’t know about when they signed the real estate contract.

    CARA STRETCH: So he’s already not going to make it.

    I don’t think some of the clients understood the mortgage they were getting. I don’t think they understood that their income wouldn’t support the loan. And, you know, they were being told lots of different things to entice them into the mortgage. And I don’t know who should pay for that, but I certainly don’t think the homeowners should be.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Cara Stretch, a housing counselor at St. Ambrose in an excerpt from the documentary American Casino, directed by Leslie Cockburn, co-produced with Andrew Cockburn, both in our studio today, as American Casino opens in New York at the Film Forum tonight. That’s Wednesday night.

Leslie, this description of the complexity, and then I think about the New Yorker review, who said, “When the Cockburns turn to victims, they absolve them of responsibility for their troubles, which seems no better than a partial truth.” Your response?

LESLIE COCKBURN: Well, I think that, overall, The New Yorker was very, very kind to us. I mean, David Denby, he loved the film, so I don’t want to be too hard on them. But I think that we heard so much — all of us heard so much that it was the borrowers’ fault. How could they be so irresponsible to take out these mortgages that they couldn’t afford?

So we really spent a lot of time — months — talking to people who were in the trenches, like Strupp, like Cara Stretch, who made it clear to us that, one, you know, when you have this mortgage, the mortgage — they were — as Strupp explains, you know, for working people, it’s very hard to take time out of your day, so these things were scheduled at the end of the day. You know, you had to pick up your kids at daycare. You didn’t have time to read the phone book-sized document. And in fact, none of us read that document. And as he points out, and the housing counselors, that they don’t even understand this stuff, because each document was different, tied to all kinds of really obscure numbers that no one can understand, and certainly not the borrower. People are not given the opportunity. They were enticed into this, as Cara says.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Yes, and, you know, quite often they’d be told, you know, that their payment will be so-and-so much, and then they’d get to the closing, and they say, “Oh, the payment will be different.” Or even, you know, as Denzel explains in the film, he got his first bill —-

AMY GOODMAN: Denzel was a schoolteacher.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Denzel the schoolteacher -— and it’s more. And they say, “Oh, we didn’t tell you that you had to pay, you know, escrow and insurance,” which should have been there, should have been in the note. I mean, that was a very common trick just to make the payment look smaller and to entice people in.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that most people who get subprime loans actually qualify for prime loans?

ANDREW COCKBURN: In 2006 — it was 61 percent, according to the Federal Reserve, at one point. So it’s — yes, I mean, the whole —- you know, any loan officer will tell you, if they’re being honest, that the whole point was to get people into subprime loans, because people up the chain made more money that way, whether or not the person had the income and other qualifications to be a prime borrower.

AMY GOODMAN: We had Elizabeth Jacobson on from Wells Fargo, who was really motivated when she saw her CEO on television saying, “We don’t do subprime loans.”


AMY GOODMAN: And she was the head of the division. And she said, for one thing, the loan officers got something like five or six thousand dollars for each subprime loan and maybe a thousand dollars for the prime loan.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Precisely, and so on up the line. I mean, for way up in Wall Street for the bonds, I mean, for the instruments they were floating and selling, subprime was better, more yield. So the whole system was tilted to pushing people into these subprime loans.

AMY GOODMAN: The heart of your story, I think, are the personal stories that are told. American Casino tells these wrenching personal stories of people, mainly African American, who lost their homes. This is Patricia McNair, a clinical therapist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore whose house went into foreclosure.

    PATRICIA McNAIR: At this point, the mortgage has been placed in foreclosure. And because of that, they’ve charged me 10,000 extra dollars in order to bring the account current. The mortgage went from about $800 a month to $2,000 a month. The minute I don’t pay it, they’re going to take the house.

    I got a letter with the ad: house, you know, 4405 Adelle Terrace being foreclosed on, with the date. Well, I screamed, because I open it up, and it’s like seeing your life on this paper. And I almost died, because they sent me that. I guess whoever sent it wanted me to know this is very serious, and you need to call us right away. And it was the actual ad from the paper. And that is the strangest feeling ever, to see it, you see, and then little print, you know, they got your name for the world to see, and it’s there. And I’m like, “Oh, my god!” So that was just the most terrifying thing.

    DAUGHTER: I’m leaving tonight at 3:00.

    PATRICIA McNAIR: Oh, no. That won’t work. Uh-uh, not by yourself. No, we have to see how that would do that. I might need to try something else.

    DAUGHTER: I need to be back by tomorrow.

    PATRICIA McNAIR: What time?

    DAUGHTER: Well, really, 10:00 in the morning. But -—

    RODNEY CARTER: I have mixed feelings about her driving by herself. If she thinks she can do it —-

    PATRICIA McNAIR: Well, 3:00 in the morning. I know she can do it, but it’s 3:00 in the morning that’s disturbing me.

    RODNEY CARTER: We weren’t expecting the mortgage to jump as it did. We are two professional individuals. You know, we both are well educated. Salaries are reasonable. And then we find ourselves in this situation. You know, it can happen to anyone. And that’s the frightening part about this whole deal.

    PATRICIA McNAIR: I do not want to be out on the street. And I know they will put me out. I’ve seen them put people out.

    RODNEY CARTER: And then additionally seeing how we, as a family, have been impacted as a result of what’s happening. And then you read about it every day in the newspaper. You do see it on the news. And it’s a sign of the times, but I think it’s a sad commentary on the country in which we live, is when -— you know, they talk about the American dream. We live in the richest country in the world, per se, and to have a system in place that makes it difficult for people, hardworking people, to own and maintain a home, I think it’s a sad commentary in itself. And I think that’s what’s become more real to me as a result of having gone through this experience.

    PATRICIA McNAIR: Before all of this started happening to me, I didn’t read these things. They didn’t apply to me. There weren’t about me. But I read everything now, everything, because I know that if it’s not me, it’s still about me. And when I think, I’m amazed to know that everything we’re doing here affects people, for so far. It’s like a ripple effect. I didn’t understand that.

    I didn’t know that there were investors who are getting rich off of people who are getting hurt. I didn’t understand that. I’m now beginning to understand that it is a business, it’s a much bigger business than I recognized, and that it’s a business that needs some type of real regulations. I don’t mean just to say there are regulations. I mean real regulations to protect the small people. That’s what I think now.

    Before, it’s like you just see this thing, and it doesn’t mean anything. Now, when I read it, oh, yes, it means a lot. It means that — I didn’t know that there was a town somewhere over in Denmark that was affected by this mortgage industry. I didn’t understand that. Today, I’m understanding that it is, and it’s more.

    So, I just can’t believe how we got like this. And when I say “we,” I mean we as a country. How did we do this, when we tell people to own a house is the dream, and it’s what our country is built on?

AMY GOODMAN: Patricia McNair, a clinical therapist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, from the documentary American Casino, which was directed by Leslie Cockburn, co-produced by Andrew Cockburn. Leslie, what happened to Patricia?

LESLIE COCKBURN: Well, it was heartbreaking, because when we first were filming with Patricia and her family — we met her first at a community meeting, where people were trying to, you know, find solutions and avoid foreclosure. So she hadn’t been foreclosed on when we first started shooting. And tragically, she lost her house as we were in the edit room. This was a terrible thing, because although it’s happening to everyone, when it happens to someone who you’ve come to know very well, it’s very upsetting. She’s now renting.

But that house was very important to her. You know, in a wasteland like inner-city Baltimore, one street, like Adelle Terrace, where neighbors get to know each other and people are sleeping over at each other’s houses, this is the kind of precious place that you want to preserve, and yet it’s falling apart, too.

AMY GOODMAN: And the story of Denzel, the schoolteacher, who almost lost his home, what happened to him? And it tells the story of who owns what, who owns the note. At the beginning it looks like he’s out.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Yeah, well, he went into bankruptcy, which was a way of staving off being kicked out of the house, but he’s basically hanging on by his fingernails, which is, you know, especially probably because we got to know him so well — and he’s got his garden. He’s feeding — he’s doing community-supported agriculture. He’s doing everything anyone living, you know, in a city should do. I mean, he’s a teacher. He’s a pillar of the community. And yet, it’s like, you know, one fingernail for Denzel.

And across the country we have a situation now where millions and millions of people are in the foreclosure process. And it’s really — millions of people are being just kicked out, but millions more are there at the whim of the banks. The banks seem to — according to how they want their balance sheet to look, can say we’ll have a few more this month, some fewer ones, people with no security.

AMY GOODMAN: And these are often bailed-out banks, bailed out by taxpayers —


AMY GOODMAN: — that are making fortunes, that are giving millions of dollars in bonuses to their execs. And you have the homeowners, the people who have been most hurt at the bottom —


AMY GOODMAN: — who are not being helped out. Can you talk about the pools, Leslie? You go to California.

LESLIE COCKBURN: Well, I just want to say one thing about Denzel, which is that it was very important to us to be able to track one human being to those computer screens in Wall Street, where you have these, you know, investment products. And we were able to do that and show that Denzel, who supposedly has a loan with Litton in Texas — Litton is owned by Goldman Sachs. We found him inside a Goldman Sachs investment product that had been put together at the time when former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson was running Goldman. So it’s a direct line from a high school teacher in inner-city Baltimore all the way to the office of the Secretary of Treasury.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many Goldman Sachs execs surround President Obama?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Oh, God, half the number.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to wrap now, but twenty seconds on the pools.

LESLIE COCKBURN: Well, the pools — this was a post-apocalyptic scene in Riverside, California, where you see pools, black pools full of seven hundred, eight hundred thousand breeding mosquitoes. You know, this is now an issue of disease. We go around with these vector control people who are checking on — you know, worried about West Nile virus, rodent infestation in piles of hundred percent financing signs. This is really, you know, the end of the line.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. American Casino, you’ve got to see it. Folks in New York are lucky, because it’s opening Wednesday night at Film Forum and then going around the country. Leslie Cockburn is the director of the film. Andrew Cockburn co-produced it. Again, it’s called American Casino.

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