Thursday, November 08, 2007

American Gangster-- The Godfather Revisited

Frank Lucas was a native son of Greensboro North Carolina, only fifteen minutes from where I grew up. It amazes me that I may well have crossed his path half a century ago, and of course not known it. He was the eldest of many brothers, and the one his younger brothers all looked up to. He moved to Harlem, and the story certainly goes downhill from there, eventually landing him in jail for fifteen years, not life only because he informed on dirty cops and numerous crime bosses in the NY and NJ area. The story is yet one more sad but true tale of how crime eventually does not pay. It is also a cautionary tale about the huge drug culture that we have had, and continue to have in this country. What was it that Jesus said about the things that most defile us coming out of the human heart, not in through the human orifices?

This Ridley Scott film (2 hours and 37 minutes), I have to say, is one of the best gangster films I have ever seen, in the same league with the first Godfather film or the French Connection, or Scarface or Serpico. If you see the film from Frank Lucas' vantage point, then it's more like the Godfather, if you see it from Richie Roberts the cop's viewpoint, you can still hear Popeye Doyle played by Gene Hackman in the background from French Connection fame. Like the Godfather this film has more than one world class actor in it-- in this case Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and Cuba Gooding plays an effective minor role as well.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Who would make up a story about a cop that passes the bar, and first gets a criminal like Lucas jailed, then defends him on appeal and gets his sentence reduced to 15 years?? It is an amazing and true story, though I gather that neither Roberts nor Lucas much want to talk about those old days from about 1967-75 any more. Lucas was released from jail in 1991, and Roberts is still around as well.

The story centers entirely in Harlem, and Frank Lucas becomes perhaps the most notorious of all African American kingpins ever, beginning in the turbulent late 60s. He is not only slick, and quick, and brutal when he needs to be. He is also very clever and thinks big-- importing heroin from Vietnam and Thailand directly--- in U.S. military planes carrying coffins! This took some engineering, not to mention some unbelievable gall.

I probably do not need to say this, but Washington puts in another sterling performance that is Oscar worthy, and Crowe is not far behind, though I was afraid that he would try too hard to imitate the Jersey accent, and mangle it. To his credit, he really doesn't. Richie Roberts might seem like a truly rare person-- a truly honest cop who will not compromise his integrity. He also is married to his work, and this costs him his marriage, and more time with his son. Neither Lucas as portrayed by Washington nor Roberts as played by Crowe are one dimensional characters-- the former is apparently not all bad (he at least loves his family and provides for them) and the latter is not a perfect saint either, at least in terms of his family and sexual life.

The seamy and steamy underworld of the drug trade in NY is very well depicted in all its darkness and wickedness, as one person after another is quite literally 'dying to get high'. The waste of human life in all directions is appalling, and the lack of conscience about it on the part of Lucas is equally appalling. In some ways this movie will remind many of the thriller from last year where the San Francisco reporter persists until he finds the serial killer. Like that movie, Roberts is like a bird dog following a scent who will not quit until he corners his prey.

The movie is nicely set up in terms of the two sides of the story, and only at the climax of the film do we actually have Roberts and Lucas meeting and talking, and what is interesting about their negotiations is that it is the hardened criminal who ends up having less steely resolve than Roberts. This was in some ways unexpected in view of the trajectory of the story.

The movie unlike some gangster films does not focus on the bad language or the violence or even the sexuality of the situation, but rather on the relentless rise to power of Lucas, at all costs, and the equally relentless pursuit of the identity and then the capture and prosecution of the criminal.

This is in some ways a morality play about the bigger you are, the harder you fall, or how eventually you will reap what you sow, but it has many other lessons to teach us as well. Here are some of them--- 1) what price success? In particular what ethical price success? Is success achievable without cheating, or bending the rules, or even crime? 2) Will cheating and crime be overlooked if only you are successful? What happens to a country's ethics that worships at the altar of success or winning at all costs? This film is certainly a cautionary tale on that subject.; 3) Is it a redeeming feature, or does it make the person more hideous that he genuinely loved his family and provided for them, all the while accomplishing this through the drug trade? I would say no, it is not a redeeming feature, indeed it makes the dark deeds all that more monstrous and hideous because the evil provided the basis for the 'good', so to speak. It is not unlike the recent revelations from Auschwitz as we now have film of the death camp guards leading a normal life and having fun in their off hours between torturing and torching Jews. This just makes the normal behavior all that more chilling. It requires a special schitzophrenia and pathology to accomplish this sort of dichotomy and still sleep well at night.

There is much more that could be said about this film, but I will end with a few final comments. It is the mark of a very good film that there is no wasted space, no filler, no gratuitous violence, even if it is a gangster film. It is also the mark of a good film (which is more than I can say for the Sopranos) that it does not try to gild the lily when we are talking about criminal behavior. The drug trade is shown for the hideous thing it is in this film. Greed is shown for the hideous sin it is, as well. Human falleness is not depicted as being truly human or as likable in this film, however much we may enjoy watching Denzel Washington play the role of Frank Lucas. Racism is shown for what it is as well.

Kudos to one and all who made this throwback film. It reminds us that in a fallen world, rust and rot never sleep, and honesty and truth are fragile things that must be doggedly pursued if they are to see the light of day.


99 Problems said...

you cannot be honest - Halo 3 is inappropriate but this movie is not?

J. Clark said...

My wife and I saw this dark yet real movie last night and it was worth the money to pay for this vision of sin and its high price which is our lives.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi 99 Problems:

I am absolutely serious. The criteria is twofold: 1) is there any artistic merit to the film/game in question?; 2) Much more importantly, is there any redeeming value in the aforementioned item or film.

In the case of Halo 3 it passes neither test. In the case of American Gangster it passes both.

I would say that American Gangster is one of the most effective portrayals ever of the consequences of sin and doing drugs, or being in the drug trade. For this alone, it is worth seeing. You need to understand as well that Halo 3 is mere entertainment. American Gangster is much more than that-- it is an education in various ways.


99 Problems said...

BW - first, i so much appreciate your blog and your perspective on things. I do - you're blog is one of my daily required readings and I learn more here than I do almost anywhere else.

That being said, i think that Halo 3 passes both tests, so i suppose we just have different perspectives on that.

anyway, thanks so much for your thoughts.