Review: Chasing Phil

Concept

In the mid seventies, the FBI had just begun to consider undercover work as a way to catch criminals.  Enter Agents J.J. Wedick and Jack Brennan, ambitious Odd Couple officers about to pose as con artist apprentices to the slippery and charismatic Phil Kitzer, international financial fraud.

Yes!

I can see why Robert Downey, Jr. wants to star in the film version of Chasing Phil. It’s got elements of American Hustle (the 1970s glam/sleaze ), The Wolf of Wall Street (the train-wreck appeal of obscene greed and hubris), and all of the movies and shows featuring Ponzi scheme artist Bernie Madoff (the adrenalin ride of the charming liar about to be caught). Also, there’s the parallel rush of G-Men Wedick and Brennan, seduced by Phil’s powerful personality even as they work on a knife’s edge to catch him. It’s got mounting tension, especially as the two FBI agents clearly fall under Phil’s spell, and grow to genuinely like him while he ruins the lives of multitudes of hapless businessmen. It’s got retro-spy tech, and edge-of-the-seat moments. This is a tale for those who enjoy peering into gray areas within the human heart.

Chasing Phil
Brennan, Kitzer, and Wedick, respectively
Robert Downey Junior
Robert Downey Junior

Hmmm…

At times, I got bogged down in the plethora of details and mini-reversals, and started to lose the emotional arc. I suppose that is a built-in hazard of the reportage style of storytelling employed by author David Howard. The details are impressively wrangled, but I wish some had been pushed to endnotes.

If I were writing the movie, I’d beef up the conflict between Agents Wedick and Brennan, so the stakes are not just about bagging Kitzer, but about saving their friendship, making this a buddy story. And my film version would present Kitzer as the projection of every boy’s ideas of success, and the evil that comes from the ruthless pursuit of riches, careless of the cost to others.

As I read this book, I got a bit queasy about the moral and ethical merits of the world of finance in general, especially during this era, so close to the Savings and Loan plundering of the 80s, among other scandals of fiscal malfeasance. This realm of pricey meals and hotel rooms, and binge drinking, of wheeling and dealing, could seem glamorous, except that it ruined the lives of honest people.

And Phil got off, became an informant, a consultant, and finally, the FBI’s pet white collar crime professor. He continued to live high on the hog. So, does crime pay, so long as it’s white collar, and you get caught first? And if so, does that end merit journalistic neutrality, especially these days? I would have appreciated more of a moral stance. Phil is clearly a sociopath, so what are we to make of the FBI agents’ hero worship and friendship for him?

Verdict

A fun and fascinating read, expertly compiled, organized and spun out, with enticing themes, and a vivid sociopath at its heart. There’s room for an enthralling filmic retelling, and when it comes out, they can take my money.

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