Most of what's good about American Hustle has nothing to do with plot. It does have a plot: as its title cards proclaim, "some of this stuff actually happened," in the infamous FBI Abscam sting that took down a number of elected officials in the 1970s and 80s. In this version of the story, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, paunchy and middle-aged with an epic combover) meets and falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former exotic dancer who's looking for a way out of her life and into a better one. The two of them team up to do some small-time swindling, but they run into some roadblocks. One is slightly unhinged FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) trying to scale his own career ladder. Another is Rosenfeld's slightly unhinged wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom Rosenfeld both can't stand and can't quit.
DiMaso brings in the two con artists and offers them a deal: if they help him take down some bigger fish on corruption charges, they'll get off the hook for their more petty crimes. And so they cook up a scheme focused on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the least corrupt politician you'll ever meet, mayor of Camden, family man, and a true public servant. He's campaigning to rebuild Atlantic City, and DiMaso, Rosenfeld, and Prosser cook up an entrapment plan to use Polito as a puppet in bringing down more prominent politicians.
But the course of con and cop cooperation never did run smooth. Rosalyn is getting more and more jealous, and also getting cozy with one of the goons in league with both the casinos and the mobs. DiMaso keeps hitting walls in the form of his kind but steely boss (an excellent Louis C.K.). Prosser and Rosenfeld's relationship is on the rocks. And Rosenfeld's friendship with Polito is making him grow some kind of conscience.
At a press conference in New York recently, director and co-writer David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) freely admitted that this script isn't all that true to the actual events. "I'm not doing historical drama," he said. "That's for another director to make." The dividing line between fact and fiction might be interesting to audiences, but what Russell finds more interesting is his characters: "I'm making cinema, so I'm going to tell the best myths, the best stories, the best operas from an amalgamation of true events that inspire me and true characters and fictional imagination."
What Russell's pointing out is something filmmakers have known a long time: telling "true" stories can be hazardous at the movies. Audiences like it and will let you get away with a lot if they think what they're watching is based in reality (the Coen brothers famously capitalized on this in Fargo, which they claimed was based on a true story but in fact was entirely made up).
But most biopics and historical epics end feeling either contrived or unsatisfying, because the facts of real life rarely fit the sort of storytelling arc that the form of cinema demands. Stories feel like they lack a real ending precisely because in real life, they do. The past is always subject to the future.