Sunday, December 9, 2007
The Gang's All Here
I have this impression of Denzel Washington as a man with a light of dignity and goodness emanating from his core. He exudes a nobility that makes him suited to playing honorable or exalted characters. He hasn't restricted himself solely to good-guy roles, but I still wondered how convincingly he would pull off playing a drug lord in Ridley Scott's recent American Gangster.
The film tells the mostly non-fiction story of Frank Lucas, a young man in early '70s Harlem who works for a neighborhood luminary and small-time crime boss Bumpy Johnson. When Bumpy dies the astute Frank senses his chance and jumps into the vacuum, riding the wave to exalted heights that most accounts have managed to overlook. ("Mostly non-fiction," as in "based on a true story," which is a step closer to verity than "inspired by true events." The bottom rung of this ladder might be "as seen on TV." How much liberty is taken with the story of Frank Lucas is unknown to me; the fact that it's likely unknown to most everyone else makes me wonder at how much is "true events" and how much is "inspiration." Still, there's no reason to let a lack of facts get in the way of a good story.) The news coverage of the Vietnam war--particularly the coverage of an epidemic of drug addiction among soldiers in Southeast Asia--sparked the idea in young Frank Lucas that he might engender his own epidemic of drug addiction right here at home in New York City. Taking a page from Old Bumpy's playbook, Frank decides to cut out the drug industry middlemen and goes personally to the sources in the jungles of Vietnam (or Laos or Cambodia or wherever) and gets his drugs directly. With the help of a cousin in the army who manages to get the pure heroin smuggled into the coffins of the dead soldiers being shipped back stateside, he is quickly up and running with the cheapest and most powerful junk to be found anywhere in New York City. And in virtually no time he is living like a third world dictator on the ruined lives of a million addicts.
I think Scott has done a stunning and moving job capturing the period. We're reminded that the 70s were a time of social turmoil, of tectonic shifts in race relations, in fashion and especially in music. Black culture flowered during this period, spreading seeds throughout mainstream culture, seeds which have continued to grow and reproduce on to our present day. But a white boy like me only saw these diluted seeds which wafted out to my little corner of Central Minnesota; I never saw the tree itself. And this is what Ridley Scott does such a beautiful job of giving us a glimpse of. One senses the streams of success and failure flowing like blood vessels just beneath the surface in the homes and offices and on the streets of Harlem. Maybe the river of failure always flowed through the middle of Harlem before this time; maybe it's the heady arrival of that stream of opportunity that is so striking, that sense that suddenly and for the first time maybe anything really is possible. In athletics and music and business, there is a heady sense of opportunity in the air for the oppressed masses in Harlem.
But I think Scott has done a better job of capturing the setting than the people. While we learn key things about Frank Lucas and his family, and about the police who doggedly track and eventually capture him, these people end up seeming like characters to me. Maybe it's the need to do justice to actual people who lived the story, or to the details which were significant in their lives but not necessarily seminal to the story being told; whatever the reason, the key players kind of fail to deliver for me.
A fair bit of screen time is devoted to Detective Richie Roberts' (played by Russell Crowe) insistence that a million dollars in drug money which he and his partner seized be duly cataloged and turned in--to the abject dismay of his partner and the rest of the police force (who scorn him for his do-good attitude) and, of course, the utter, stupefied wonder of the criminals with whom he comes into contact for the rest of his career. Great pains seem to have been taken that we do not fail to grasp this characteristic of the man. The streak of honesty is weakly referred to and cited in his being tagged to head a federal task force on organized drug running, and he is allowed to pick a cadre of good, honest men. And everyone he meets for the entire movie asks him incredulously if he actually did what they heard he did. But none of this--even if it's the seminal thing in the real life detective's career--seems to have much play in the story of Frank Lucas. Likewise Richie's marital troubles. His wife, who evidently still has feelings for him, initiates divorce proceedings presumably for his being an absentee father, and Richie weakly contests the custody of their son. But in the end, he relents, agreeing that his is no life for the child, and the kid is better off with mom. Detective Roberts is given some human depth with these developments, but to no purpose for our story. He heads the task force that eventually brings Frank Lucas down, but his personal life plays virtually no role in that achievement. Nor, for that matter, do we get very far inside the police efforts to get Lucas. There's a lot of talk, but Lucas's apprehension just seems to happen. If this is a gripping part of the real story, to me it ends up feeling like the Cliff's Notes version.
And that's kind of the way with the other characters as well. I read a snippet of another review of this movie where the writer referred to Frank Lucas as "the smartest guy in the room." And that's true in the same way that we've come to understand that most organized crime involves very capable and shrewd people at the top, and increasingly dim and expendable ones further down the food chain. Frank Lucas is the guy who makes the whole business happen, and there are the requisite scenes of ruthless decisiveness and swift brutality which demonstrate his steel resolve to his slack-jawed brothers and cousins and which keep him at the sharp point of the organization. He makes his name and fortune by being very unpretentious and hands-on--he openly despises the flashy clothes and jive-shucking behavior of some around him--and as his wealth and success pull him away from those simple beginnings we see the seeds of his eventual downfall. He woos and marries. He rescues his mother (wonderfully played by Ruby Dee) from a life of poverty in North Carolina and installs her in a kingly mansion in New Jersey. But this all happens with a certain clinical detachment. It seems a story with much of its emotional content diluted. In the end he saves himself from an eternity in prison by doing things which don't seem at all in character with the man who has spent the previous two hours preaching his business gospel to his wide-eyed underlings. OK, the man wasn't a saint: he knowingly and calculatedly made junkies out of scores of his fellow black people, whom he otherwise was trying to unify against the white man's racist oppression (which was still very much in evidence). But in the end the story just doesn't seem to paint a very coherent picture of the man. Or maybe it paints a picture of a not very coherent man.
Either way, it is a movie which, like a James Bond film set in exotic Delhi, delivers us brilliantly into the very foreign world of Harlem, circa 1972. And that's its payoff: the basic facts of Frank Lucas's story, and the heights to which he rose--and from which he fell--are engrossing (the enormity of his accomplishments are given to us textually at story's end). But the people come off here as though we've come to know them by way of a graphic novel. (The one exception to this character ennui is the actual bust of the drug operations, which is very deftly done.) In answer to my opening question: Denzel Washington is not the problem here; if anything, his cleanliness and erect posture actually give him a bit of menace that he might not have if (following the lead of seemingly everyone else in the movie) he slouched and opted not to bathe. (In fact, I was going to title my review TBB: the Time Before Bathing because nearly everyone looks disgustingly dirty.)
But he's not reason enough to see the show. No, the payoff is getting an inside glimpse of a vibrant and distinct time in history, given to us like a little time capsule. This is the same period as The French Connection, but that movie only dreams of having as gritty and real a setting as this one, in spite of having been made in present day 1971. But that movie, as I recall, did a better job with its characters than this one.