CAMDEN, N.J. — In "American Hustle," a highly fictionalized telling of the bizarre Abscam FBI corruption sting of the 1970s, the public official on the take is the most selfless character.
In the film, which opened Friday, Camden Mayor Carmine Polito turns down a briefcase full of money when he is first offered a bribe. The character, based on real-life Mayor Angelo Errichetti and played by Jeremy Renner, later agrees to accept the money because he believes doing so would lead to job production and help residents.
Those who knew him and have studied the long-troubled city agree Errichetti was deeply concerned for his constituents but has a complicated persona.
"For all the mayors I worked for, he was THE mayor," said Richard Cignalia, who spent more than 40 years in Camden city government and was appointed by Errichetti to be city finance director. "If you went to him with a problem, he was accessible and he really did care about the city."
Cignalia, who's seen only the trailers so far, notes that Renner's version of his boss has the right pompadour, but he's still worried about how he's portrayed.
"I hope he doesn't look like a big crook who didn't care," Cignalia said.
But in the movie, by putting public service first and genuinely befriending the man who would bring him down, he comes off as downright innocent if you can overlook his willingness to deal with the mob if he thought it was for the greater good.
In real life, the mayor's undoing may have helped push a city already on the brink into an even darker time.
Errichetti was elected mayor in 1973 as his hometown was reeling from race riots two years earlier, and manufacturers and their jobs were disappearing.
"He was pretty impressive in the way he dealt with an incredibly difficult transition in terms of the white working class disappearing overnight," said Howard Gillette, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University's Camden campus and the author of "Camden After the Fall," a history of the city. "It was certainly more than a thumb in the dam."
Gillette, who taught a class this semester on political corruption, credits Errichetti, the last white mayor of a mostly minority city, for working closely with black leaders. He doesn't think Errichetti could have done anything to reverse the city's decline.
By the end of the 1970s, Errichetti was also chairman of the state Senate's budget committee and the undisputed leader of southern New Jersey's Democratic machine. Besides trying to restore his city, he was trying to spur redevelopment in Atlantic City. In 1976, voters agreed to allow gambling there, but it would be five years before the first casino opened.
Then came Abscam, the operation at the center of "American Hustle." The movie, a 1970s-era period piece with low necklines and big hair, gets its first of many laugh lines with the words that appear on screen as it opens: "Some of this actually happened."