American Gangster (2007)

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*. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, television, in the words of Chuck Klosterman, “actually became good”: “In one ten-year span, high-end television usurped the cultural positions of film, rock, and literary fiction. The way people talked about TV radically changed, and so did the way we judged its quality.”
*. By “high-end television” Klosterman is referring to a spate of cable dramas that resurrected the dead art of long-form storytelling: shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.
*. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that American Gangster (which runs 157 minutes in the theatrical release, 176 minutes in the unrated director’s cut; or, in Ridley Scott’s phrase, is “slightly epic, biggish”) shares in this same sensibility. We are on what has become familiar ground here. There’s the focus on organized crime, the police surveillance detail (the war room headed by a pin board crammed with photos of the targets of the investigation has become a very familiar set), the Blue Magic that would be reborn as Walter White’s purer-than-pure blue meth, and even Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) being shot dead in the street after challenging his rival to lay down.

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*. Television has a natural affinity for these stories. But this is a movie, and more than that a prestige picture. And we may reflect on that: how the gangster film became a prestige genre, going from its decidedly humble beginnings to big-budget, A-list, Oscar bait. The watershed was probably The Godfather, but surely such a reversal of fortune wasn’t entirely the result of that film’s success.
*. I said Oscar bait. The promotional materials for this one were dripping over the “Academy Award winners” lined up (not just Washington and Crowe, but Cuba Gooding, Jr., producer Brian Grazer and screenwriter Steven Zaillian as well). The special 3-disc “collector’s edition” on DVD gives the same impression of a work of great importance: packaged in a cardboard box with a booklet included and a red ribbon as part of the binding. I got it on sale. I don’t recommend it, by the way, as the extra two discs provide nothing of any interest.
*. Fashion. The glamour of the gangster lifestyle. It’s unavoidable. Remember those scenes in the tailor shop in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy? Remember how Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde became a fashion sensation? Later films would make the nice clothes into a fetish of the genre (think The Untouchables and Public Enemies), but the connection has always been there. Perhaps it all comes from Al Capone being a snappy dresser. Here, at least, it fits with the storyline. Lucas’s downfall is that chinchilla coat and hat.
*. Speaking of that magnificent coat . . . would it have really burned in a fireplace? I have my doubts.
*. Didn’t they have drug-sniffing dogs in the 1970s? They would have made everybody’s life easier.

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*. The real Richie Roberts was reported to be upset that he was shown in a custody battle when in fact he never had a child. If that was the worst he could come up with he still should have been sending the producers a fruit basket for casting Russell Crowe in his part and being portrayed as such a hero. Everyone he meets, from his fellow cops to his ex-wife, are in slack-jawed amazement at just how great a guy he is.
*. There’s always a danger attaching to historical dramas dealing with the stories of people who are not only still alive but who are consulted in the production. To put it mildly, they’re going to be airbrushed. Roberts also objected to the presentation of Lucas, saying he was made to appear too noble. I imagine he didn’t like the competition.
*. But I don’t know if there’s any way around this. Can you make a gangster movie where the gangsters aren’t charismatic? Where their lifestyle doesn’t seem attractive? The money, the women, the clothes, the big houses and nice cars.
*. That said, Lucas is a little much. He’s obviously a handsome man. He’s good to his woman. He supports his family. He believes in loyalty and has a code that extends to putting coasters under drinks when they’re set on a table. He’s strong and brave. He goes to church with his mother every Sunday. He comes from a rough background but has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He is a successful businessman, and his ingredients for success — “the most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from” — echo traditional values.
*. The epilogue in the unrated vesion, which I didn’t like, adds to this because it shows Lucas redeemed and now buddies with Roberts.

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*. Lucas’s nobility is further enhanced by how sleazy the special investigations officers, led by Josh Brolin, are. They have “no code of ethics.” They are corrupt. They steal. They slap women around, threaten old ladies, and shoot dogs. So who is worse? Whose side are we on?
*. This is a point worth raising here because I think it bears on why this movie fails to be great.
*. It could have been great. The talent was there. The cast is good and the screenplay well written, maintaining interest throughout the long running time. The overall look of the film is very professional without being annoyingly slick. As Steven Zaillian notes on the DVD commentary, Scott had a “resistance to being precious, or everything being perfect” visually. What there is is an incredible attention to detail, great locations, and some lovely photography. I particularly like all the scenes that are filled with drifting snowflakes, seeming to not even fall but dance in Brownian motion. The thing is, I’m pretty sure they were digitally added or being blown by machines, since I believe the film was shot in the summer and fall and according to Scott it was actually very hot and humid despite the fact that it always appears to be Christmas.

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*. And yet . . . for all of its distinguished qualities, it’s an unexceptional film. Ian Freer: “very little in the movie feels fresh, re-treading scenes, riffs and imagery from the whole history of crime flicks.” I think this is the problem. It’s simply too conventional a gangster film. Where is the originality? Instead of breaking new ground we get what Freer identifies, correctly, as re-treads: like the stripping of the cargo plane, which echoes the stripping of the Cadillac in The French Connection, or the montage of the round-up of the gang at the end which is taken from The Godfather.
*. Most damaging of all, however, is how conventional it is in the presentation of the two leads, who are both clichés: the last honest cop and the gangster who has struggled up from the gutter in the usual rags-to-riches gangster fashion. These aren’t so much characters as they are starring roles. As such they scarcely require anything from Washington or Crowe at all. As I said earlier, this may be because they were playing real people who were still alive. In the end, however, it was also a creative decision, and one that played it safe. The result is a movie where everything is done well but nothing is new.

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