American Hustle opens with the words: “Some of this actually happened.” Based on that tongue-in-cheek qualifier and the outlandish events of the film, you might think that David O. Russell took some major liberties with his retelling of the late-’70s FBI sting operation called Abscam.
But it turns out that some parts of the actual story are even more shocking than what appears on screen. Here’s what’s historical — and what’s Hollywood drama — based on a reading of the book Sting Man, in which Newsday journalist Robert W. Greene spills the details on Abscam through interviews with Mel Weinberg (the Irving Rosenfeld character in the film).
[ Warning: Spoilers ahead. ]
The FBI enlisted a career con artist from the Bronx to help them bust a mayor, six congressman and a senator for taking bribes.
In the movie, the real Mel Weinberg is named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Weinberg really did have a both a dry-cleaning and a glass-installation business before he set up the fake “London Investors,” which he would use to swindle people desperately seeking loans. He was a key piece to the Abscam operation and a star witness in the trials. Like in the movie, he began to get nervous when the feds expressed interest in going after the Mafia, but the case never got that far. He’s still alive and living in Florida.
Rosenfeld cooperated with the feds to help his mistress
Ruling: Mostly Fact
Rosenfeld’s mistress in the film, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is based on Weinberg’s real-life mistress Evelyn Knight. In the movie, the FBI cannot arrest Rosenfeld, but they do have dirt on Prosser. An FBI agent holds Prosser for three days to coerce Ronsenfeld into cooperating with them. In reality, Weinberg was arrested; he pled guilty when agents threatened his mistress with prosecution. It was only after he was sentenced to serve a prison term that the FBI approached him to help with Abscam.
The mistress was also a con artist
Ruling: Mostly Fact
Weinberg’s real mistress, Evelyn Knight, played only small parts in his scams. She wasn’t the full partner as she is in the film. The character in the movie also invents an English accent for herself (in order to give credence to London Investors scam). In fact, Evelyn Knight was actually British.
There was a love triangle between Rosenfeld, his mistress and an FBI agent
As far as we know, Evelyn Knight never became involved with an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso in the film) in order to play a long con on the feds to save herself and her lover.
The FBI used a fake sheikh to trick the politicians
The feds really did invent an Arab sheikh named Abdul who allegedly wanted to invest his millions in building Atlantic City casinos in exchange for fast-tracking his bid for U.S. citizenship. The duped congressmen exchanged political favors for the sheikh’s cash. One real-life episode not in the film is when Weinberg invited a number of politicians and mobsters onto a yacht supposedly owned by the sheikh but actually operated by the FBI. Onboard, several of the politicians took pictures with the fake sheikh played by a Lebanese-born FBI agent (who, unlike his film counterpart, really did speak Arabic)
Rosenlfeld (Weinberg) made a deal with the FBI to give his friend Carmine Polito (Angelo Errichetti) immunity or a reduced sentence
New Jersey Mayor Angelo Errichetti (Carmine Polito in the film, played by Jeremy Renner) really was revered as a “man of the people” who wanted to rebuild Atlantic City to create jobs. But the film gives a largely sympathetic portrayal of Polito that may not be deserved — many of his crimes left his own pockets lined with cash. And though Weinberg and Errichetti did become friends, Weinberg never sought to give Errichetti immunity by tricking the FBI.
Rosenfeld’s wife almost blew Rosenfeld’s cover to the mafia
Ruling: Probably fiction
Weinberg’s wife Marie was probably not as crazy as the Rosalyn Rosenfeld portrayed so comedically by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie. As far as we know, she didn’t have an affair with a mobster or accidentally start fires in her house. In 1982, she claimed that Weinberg has accepted gifts from targets of the investigation, an allegation that Weinberg denied. She claimed that a microwave they received was given to them by an Abscam mark (like in the movie) in ABC’s 20/20. She tragically died one week later — her death was ruled a suicide.