November 14, 2007

American Gangster


Iago is one of Shakespeare's most interesting characters, a motiveless malignity according to Coleridge. We should be interested in Iago and his motivation because it brings up the question of what evil is, why men do evil and why they seek the fruits of evil. Ridley Scott's new film, American Gangster brings that question to the fore as well. Based on the life of the first generation of black drug barons in Harlem, Scott focuses on Frank Lucas, a key player in the late sixties and early seventies. Scott though presents us with not one but two characters, much in the mould of Scorsese's Departed, we have the cop and the criminal. And here, again as with Scorsese, they are presented as two sides of the same coin, but what we come back to again and again is their motivation.

Lucas is played with charismatic elan by Denzel Washington and the cop, Richie Roberts by longtime Scott colaborator Russel Crowe. The film concentrates on their stories- particularly that of Lucas and explicitly contrasts the two men. It shows how Lucas arose from the backstreets of Harlem, using South Asian heroine to finance his rise. He sold it cheaper and purer than the competition, effectively breaking the mob's control on it. He used his family to courrier it around and sell it themselves as he trusted noone else. Lucas was not taken in by the glamour of the criminal lifestyle, he sought to hide. He enjoyed his wealth to a limited and covert extent, finding a beauty queen Puerto Rican wife and houses for his mother and brothers to match his new riches. Ultimately Lucas is always in control in every shot of the film that he bestrides.

Roberts, the cop, is not so much in control of his private life. His most important moment there is an admission that he can't cope, not a declaration that he can. He sleeps with anything he can find- the audience of film critics visibly tittered at one unintentionally funny moment when his lawyer begged him to 'fuck me like a cop' and child support officers are always likely to turn up just as he has finished screwing an air hostess! But like Lucas he has rules to which he adheres. Whilst on the job he is a cop, nothing more, nothing less and is defined by his job. So he will hand in his partner if his partner commits a crime. He will give a million pounds back to the police department even if there would be no consequences to taking it. Everything he does in searching for Lucas is methodical, is cautious and thoughtful. Like a master spider, you know throughout the movie he will catch his fly simply because of his policing ethics.

The two men though share something else- and its a question asked of both of them- why? For Lucas the moment comes just after a boxing fight. He realises that he has become a target, because he yielded to his affectionate wife and wore a fur coat to the fight, he became conspicuous. He tosses the fur coat into the fire and watches the flames lick around it. His wife stares at him, uncomprehendingly, asking in her eyes the question why have you done that? For Crowe it comes towards the end of the film and this time its Lucas asking the question. Lucas points out that the million pounds that Crowe handed in would have ended up in the hands of corrupt police officials anyway, he points out to Crowe that whatever he does to Lucas the world will continue to operate and heroine will continue to be sold, why, Lucas asks, bother with this methodical investigation? Why not just take the money and head into the distance, taking back your wife, and living the high life?

Does the film give us an answer? It does through the words of an old mafia boss that Lucas arranges his distribution through. That boss turns to Lucas and says you have a choice, you can be successful and find enemies or you can be unsuccessful and have friends, but you can't be successful and have friends. What he points out is what for Lucas is quite clear, being a successful gangster has a price, the price is the ability to enjoy the fruits of success. The price of victory is eternal vigilance. Ultimately both for Lucas and Roberts ambition has conquered their souls. Lucas could of course run to enjoy the fruits of his success, but he doesn't because he wants to make the final deal. Roberts could leave with his wife and child, but that isn't even in question. He'll stay to catch the villain.

This is a well acted film. Washington commands the screen with a presence unlike most other actors of this age. In one scene, a confrontation between Lucas and Roberts outside a church, Washington stands with all the command and poise of a Spanish aristocrat, a sneer of cold command twisting his lips looking down on this wreck of a man below. Crowe gives a much less overstated performance, but he captures the private shambles and public purity of the cop he plays. It is worth noting that neither man was quite like this in real life- Lucas liked the high life more than Washington did, and Roberts didn't sleep with anything in a skirt. But dramatically the contrast- the tension between desire and ambition makes more sense- its something that Scott and his actors can explore.

That tension is explored less often than it deserves. More films explore the tensions say between family and relationships and ambition- take A Devil wears Prada, superficially a very different film but actually about a similar subject. Scott though is more realistic in the way that he explores family ties and ambition and their confluence. On the one hand, both Lucas and Roberts risk losing their families because of their ambition, but on the other their ambition, we can see, is what allows them families in the first place. In Lucas's case the Puerto Rican beauty that he marries is someone who he never would meet without his nefarious success. There is something of the American Dream here. Both Characters aspire to bring the money home for doing a good job. However in neither case does the model work. Lucas seeks to employ everyone else in his family in his business but ultimately is deserted by them when he falls. Roberts works all hours for his job, only to lose his wife and kids partly because his dedication to being a good man means that he won't take bribes to establish them in life. Again what we see is this contrast- ambition creates a situation where you can help your family, but letting it let rip means that in the end you neglect them or lose them.

There are some problems here too. Ridley Scott loses his complexity when he puts in a corrupt police officer, whose only role in the film seems to be to act with his buddies as a bully and provide a focus of villainy. In that sense Scott offers understanding to the real villain, Lucas, and not to those corrupt enough to be seduced by Lucas- he focuses on Eve and Adam not the snake. Russell Crowe does do his performance rather well- but he is becoming a caricature as well- this performance drunken, manly, tough is becoming the signature tune of an actor who has more interesting work within him. The women characters aren't sketched out well either- neither Lucas's wife nor Roberts's wife are really given any character.

Turning back to the central dilemma, what is interesting about it is the way that American Gangster reflects a society in which doing your job has become the substitute for an ethic. We all know why that is- in the longterm it is sensible not to be pettily corrupt- but that doesn't work obviously with all levels of potential income and the truth is that if you discount public service, there is no reason not to aim for what you can collect. The ethos of ego clashes in this film with the ethos of the job and it isn't obvious that the job wins- its clear that in the long run letting your ego rip leads to disaster, in the long run we are all dead, but it is also clear that not doing so leaves us with the question we would like to ask Iago:

What is the motive of a motiveless malignity?

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