Nov 9, 2007

American Gangster

The gangster story, like the Western, is a quintessentially American genre. And, in many ways, it is the opposite of the Western. The Western is about the taming of the frontier and the making of a nation. It values individual initiative through hard work and playing by the rules, along with material wealth and the spirit that comes from community. The gangster story bemoans the corruption of the American Dream. It shows individual initiative through illegal means, a corrupt, paranoid community and a success that is defined only through wealth.

The gangster genre is really a form of crime story, and when you write one you need to be very aware of this larger context and deeper theme. It is all about how an individual succeeds in American society. Knowing this allows you to tell a larger tale. And it prevents the audience from distancing themselves from your story by saying, "Oh, that's just a bunch of foreigners killing each other in some pocket on American soil."

Writer Steve Zaillian knows this larger context, which is why he can justifiably call this story of a black drug lord American Gangster. True to the form, he uses the story structure of the rise and fall of a king. Frank Lucas is the American businessman gone bad, and the fact that he is black is relevant only in that he represents the latest ethnic group in America to take this dark path to success.

But Zaillian isn't content to simply twist the gangster form by using a black main character. He tries to expand the scope of his story by using the larger crime genre. This is a broad category of stories - with gangster as one of the sub-genres - that focuses on the battle between cop and criminal. Ironically, Zaillian's choice only serves to diminish the scope and power of the film.

Crime stories derive much of their pleasure from two main elements: the plot machinations between the cop and the criminal and the blending of moralities by which the cop and the criminal live their lives. The first element is almost non-existent in this story. Frank's rise to power is unique only in his use of US Army personnel to bring his heroin from Southeast Asia. Cop Richie Roberts uses techniques that have been standard on TV crime shows for years.

This weakness in plot puts a serious dent in the dramatic power of the film, because it also means there is not enough mano-a-mano. There's none of the pleasure of Heat or The French Connection here. Frank and Richie, played by two powerhouse actors, have essentially one confrontation in the entire film. It's a good one, but it only highlights how much direct confrontation is missing in the rest of the movie.

The writer's choice of having two central but separate characters takes an even greater toll on the other key element of the crime story, the moral blend. We normally think of cop and criminal at two opposite extremes of the moral spectrum. A good crime story will use the battle between these two characters to show that the moral difference between them is much more ambiguous.

Zaillian shows the moral contradictions within each of these characters individually. One of the reasons the classic gangster story is fascinating is that the gangster holds two wildly different moralities within his own head. On the one hand, Frank believes in family, integrity, and professionalism. He also believes in selling dope and killing people who get in his way. The gangster's ability to compartmentalize these impossibly different ways of living is one of the great examples of the human mind's almost infinite ability to rationalize.

Cop Richie is pretty good at compartmentalizing his morality as well. He turns in a million dollars of corrupt money and goes after dirty cops, but he's also a bad husband and father. An ongoing dramatic confrontation between these two men could have produced a deeper look at what is truly moral and immoral in American society. But it never happens.

Instead, the most interesting aspects of these characters and their real moral contrast come at the end of the film, in written epilogue. Richie, the incorruptible cop who brings down kingpin Frank and three fourths of the cops in the narcotics division, switches from prosecutor to defense attorney, and his first client is Frank. He succeeds in getting Frank only fifteen years in prison. But we've already seen that Frank has not only destroyed hundreds of lives through his drug running, he is a cold-blooded killer.

When I read that my eyes popped out of my head. And I wondered, Where's that movie? This script just started getting interesting on the last page.