Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cleveland vs Wall Street (opens in Cleveland April 8)

[CLEVELAND VS. WALL STREET opens in Cleveland Friday April 8th at the Cedar Lee and Capitol Theatres.]

Review by Pete Roche

It’s the case of a junkyard dog against a raging bull.  It’s a study of how corporate highbrows took advantage of uneducated homeowners who dared indulge their own pursuit of the ever-elusive American Dream.  Their Goliaths envision dollar signs from atop an ivory tower.  Our David sees condemned signs and bulldozers outside his house. 


Attorneys working for our scrappy comeback-city filed a landmark civil suit against thirty-two banks in 2008 seeking millions of dollars in damages for the “public nuisance” caused by the foreclosure crisis.  Specifically, counsel for the Plum City allege these financial giants triggered the housing debacle by catering to sub-prime lenders—who loaned liberally to high-risk borrowers who often had no realistic means to maintain repayment over time.  The resulting “rash of defaults” left thousands of homes abandoned, their shattered windows attracting neighborhood looters, drug dealers, and scrap-seekers.  The city was saddled with the cost of boarding up, policing, and then demolishing these eyesores—which quickly ruined property values and deflated Cleveland’s tax base.

The long list of well-backed defendants—which includes Wells Fargo, HSBC Holdings, Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan Chase Co., and Lehman Brothers—were able to stall trial in Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court before Judge Peter Corrigan.  But the high-profile case intrigued Swiss filmmaker Jean-Stephane Bron, who decided to ferret the pertinent legal, social, and economic issues by staging an elaborate mock trial with some of the actual parties.  
The testimony given by the string of “witnesses” called to the stand by plaintiff’s attorney Joshua Cohen and defense counsel Keith Fisher reveals the complex mechanism Manhattan firms employed to legally bilk hundreds of Slavic Village families out of their homes.  Maintenance man Fred Kushen explains how he was unable to pay his mortgage after tenants at his other property fell behind on rent.  When Cohen asks Kushen how he sought refinancing, Kushen says the broker “came to me.”  Construction worker Ray Velez likewise claims he was approved for a pair of mortgages costing triple the price originally paid for his house.

Some of the “jurors” might not have survived an actual voir dire process, given their personal attachments to the issues.  Slavic Village resident Barbara Anderson herself was duped into a variable interest rate loan she soon couldn’t pay back.  Now a champion for the Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People organization, Anderson puts a face to the problem and gives voice to the oppressed.  So what Bron’s taut courtroom drama lacks in objections and sidebars with Judge Tom Pokorny, it compensates for with emotion.  
Cynical viewers (this one included) will note that these banks didn’t exactly stick guns to anybody’s heads; the borrowers admit on the stand that they knew what they were getting into.  But keep your eye on the ball: while they may be victims, they aren’t plaintiffs here.  The City of Cleveland is, to the tune of millions.  And it’s hard to argue with math.

Or the aftermath.   2 ½ stars out of 4.

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