The trailer and DVD packaging suggests a laughathon but this is misleading. Those wanting a lighthearted, feel good escape movie will be confronted by some heavy material, including heart break and terminal illness – dying is in the first scene. And those not wanting a silly buddy movie will be wrongly put off a true story which is touching and has some important issues.
It’s those issues that make me write.
The DVD extras make no mention of a campaign to release Steven Jay Russell, who has been in prison in solitary confinement for 13 years. His crime officially is for being a repeat offending con man and escapee. However, being in Texas and under Bush’s presidency, the film hints that the real reason for this severity might be his homosexuality.
Russell says ‘nobody gets hurt.’ In fictional con movie The Brothers Bloom, another Steven says ‘the best tricks are where everyone gets what they want’. The crimes committed are mostly impersonation. Although never trained as a lawyer, Steven Russell performed very well as one. He says in the film to the judge that he didn’t want to see his client – ‘a humble woman’ – roughbeaten by the slick serial litigator for the other side. The judge saw his point – and so do I.
Reading this week about the early King Henrys of England, it emerges that the power of law came from this era – something still in force in England and therefore arguably taken to America by settlers. Many of us internationally feel angry with finance and government at present. The other pillar, law – a ‘service’ many of us can’t afford – is in cahoots with other pillars to enforce a system that often isn’t just. Law should be about justice and protecting the innocent, but so often it’s an expensive form of bullying and is more concerned about property than right. That Steven used it for his own ends is what many people do anyway. He wanted to release his partner from prison – who had served on a minor offence, so he impersonated those who had the power release Phillip. He helped the ‘humble woman’ win her case.
But mostly Steven was motivated by love. It was often twisted into materialism where Steven believed money and gifts buy happiness and that obvious status symbols are our birthright and the signs of success. His partners – Phillip at least – didn’t need that life to believe Steven loved him or treated him well, and it ultimately led to over a decade of separation. Steven made money by putting large amounts of his company’s money in high interest accounts whilst it sat there between transactions. That to me that is acumen, not a crime. It didn’t seem to be hurting anyone – unlike the financial problems of now. He lived the life of investment bankers – and yet very few of those have suffered, especially not those at the top. Instead, their country has bailed them out with public money. Although Steven took a large cut from that fund, it was interest that wasn’t being made without his resourcefulness and the company benefitted as well as him. What would have been better was to have told the board rather than do it secretly – although one asks if the board would have let him keep any of it and if they alone would have benefitted from his idea instead. It seems the fierce punishments for fraud really relates to the value put on money and possession.
Another real life conman was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can. His reward was to be head hunted for a new career that utilised his gall, not punished for it. Why is Steven Russell so different? One wonders if what really upsets the establishment is not the innocent people are duped but that their precious professions are tainted by unqualified outsiders who can ape them and do just as well. It is not that I condone con artistry – and was shocked at his feigning AIDS – but that the punishment for Steven is far too high. He has not harmed anyone. The watershed at end of the film might have changed him, as he realises that that high lifestyle is not necessary and that being a conman hides from being his real self. Instead of being able to put that into practice, he has been locked away for all but one hour each day since 1998, separated from Phillip and the rest of the world.
His sentence is a ridiculous 144 years – the number beloved of Jehovah’s witnesses and the book of Revelations – more than most serial killers and sexual abusers.
This is disproportionate punishment and is another misuse of public money as well as warped justice.