Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Does the fact that it happened matter?

This is the tenth in my series of posts called Second Chances, in which I revisit films I liked less than most people liked them. It runs on Tuesdays.

American Gangster was not on the original list I made for Second Chances. I thought most people pretty much agreed with my assessment of it.

But then I wrote a post that got a lot of people's attention, in which I accused Ridley Scott of, er, a "creative slump," and used American Gangster as one of my primary examples of why he's no longer the auteur I once loved. I believe I actually called it a "waste of celluloid." Several commenters jumped to the defense of the 2007 film, and I vowed to watch it again.

Well, they were right, for the most part. Right after finishing my second viewing of American Gangster, I changed my "thumbs down" judgment to a "thumbs up" in my official spreadsheet. The movie actually does compare favorably to a Scorsese film in a lot of ways. It's impressively crafted and benefits from good performances. Most importantly, one of my primary complaints -- that the protagonist and the antagonist aren't even aware of each other's existence until 80 minutes in, and don't meet until the movie's nearly over -- did not seem such a problem for me this time. I was actually sort of fond of the structural choice, of the parallel lines that were moving closer to a point as the story moved forward.

I do still want to talk about the thing that remains a big problem for me, though not a fatal one. This problem deals a significant artistic blow to the project in its last ten minutes, which is why it stuck in my craw so much. It's just that time when a perfectly good movie can be undone by a temporary lapse in judgment.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the villain in this film. No two ways about it. He's not the pawn for some other evil mastermind; he's the evil mastermind himself. He douses a guy in gasoline, lights him on fire, then puts three bullets in him. He shoot a man through the forehead in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy street. He beats a guy within an inch of his life by slamming his head repeatedly against a piano -- and that's one of his friends. No, Frank Lucas is not a nice guy. (I'll pause to acknowledge that Josh Brolin's Detective Trupo functions as co-villain).

But in the last ten minutes of the film, Scott and writer Steve Zaillian try like hell to reverse the characterization they and Washington have worked so hard to establish. They want us to hug the guy.

Read no further if you don't want American Gangster spoiled for you.

With less than ten minutes to go in the movie, Frank Lucas turns state's evidence. What follows is a montage of scenes of Frank and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) connecting people via lines on chalkboards, intermingled with scenes of bad guys being led away in handcuffs. This montage closes with a picture of Washington's face, his eyes twinkling with joy, his face bursting out in the carefree laughter of a man in love with life. Not the scowling gangster we've been watching for 140 minutes.

This close-up of Washington's face is a big problem for me. It's as though the man is "finally free," like he's been trying to get out the whole movie, and has finally made it. But it's not true. Frank Lucas never wanted to get out, he just wanted to make more and more money, peddle more and more influence, and intimidate more and more people. There was never a scene in which we felt like this was a lifestyle in which he was imprisoned; it was the lifestyle he chose, and the lifestyle he loved. He should hate having to cooperate with the police, but instead, it looks like he loves it.

After this we learn that Richie Roberts became a defense attorney, and that his first client was ... Frank Lucas. It's supposed to be this moment of perfect irony that's supposed to make you smile. But let's examine that for a moment. Why are we smiling? Is it because "these guys are more alike than they think" and "they'd make a perfect team"? It can't be. Roberts is a "boy scout," as one crooked cop calls him -- he turns in $1 million in found money, and he can't abide by the very idea of breaking a law. Lucas, on the other hand, never met a law he didn't want to not only break, but obliterate beyond recognition. Why do we even feel like Lucas deserves someone like Roberts? Why should Roberts' moral high-mindedness be used in the defense of this scum? It doesn't feel like "smiling irony" to me -- it feels more like "wincing irony."

Of course, the closing image of the film does not leave Frank with that broad smile and hearty laughter we saw before. After serving a 15-year sentence, Lucas walks out out of the prison ("Bye Frank," someone says -- see, they thought he was a "nice guy" in prison too). As the gate closes behind him, he's left with a blank look on his face -- nowhere to go, no one to greet him -- as Public Enemy's "Can't Truss It" plays in the background, a great indication of the time that's passed and the ways Frank's world has changed.

So Frank goes from a murdering drug kingpin to a cooperative stool pigeon to a broken old man. It's a comeuppance, I guess. But it doesn't fit his character. Like Scarface before him, this guy needed to go out in a hail of gunfire. At least that's how they set up this version of Frank Lucas.

Except that's not what really happened. And that was the point of the commenters who disagreed with my assessment of the ending of the film. "Should they have made up a different ending?" one asked.

It's an interesting question that requires further discussion. Okay, you've got a problem: You want to make Frank Lucas this bad-ass gangster, which he undoubtedly was, but what happened in real life was that he went state's evidence, spent 15 years in jail, and then came out a foggy, unmoored old man. Do you change the ending?

No. You can't. So you change the beginning and the middle.

It's too jarring to force a 180-degree turn in our perspective of the film's primary villain in the last ten minutes (really, five minutes) of the movie. So we need to see the cracks in him earlier, the indications that there is a morally upright person hiding in there somewhere, who may actually want to do the right thing on some level.

Those who disagree with me would insist that the filmmakers tried to humanize Frank by documenting Frank's love for his family, specifically, his mother. He buys his mother a massive (I mean massive) home with a sprawling front lawn, which is really better described as a neatly manicured open lot, it's so big. And he sits around large tables with his extended family, where everyone laughs and passes piping hot dishes of food.

But what love does he really show them? He actually corrupts them beyond salvation. He turns his law-abiding brothers (one of whom he beats mercilessly in a car later on) into common thugs, and makes even his own mother an accessory after the fact to his villainy. This is not love. Buying the house is showiness, strutting of his bling. And bringing in his brothers is just so he can trust his criminal associates, which is hugely important in any such enterprise.

The most affecting moment related to Frank's emotional inner life is when his mother tells him he's gone too far, and that his family, and she specifically, will leave him. (A short speech that in itself earned Ruby Dee an Oscar nomination.) Here, Frank does seem to feel a little guilt over everything he's done. But it's not convincing. I mean, what son doesn't feel shame when his mother is scolding him?

Since you have to assume that many of these scenes are fictionalized, to some degree, it would have been very possible to write a scene or two in which Frank shows signs of wanting to be a better man. I'm not talking about departing from the historical record, but just little details, any little signs of humanity, that would make the coda a bit less abrupt. Because even though you are dealing with a real person who actually lived, in the most immediate sense, he's a character in this story, and he has to function as an effective character in this limited context. If some small tweaking is required, you have to do it. If you don't feel like you can do that tweaking without violating the truth, well then, don't tell this story. Or tell this story in a different way, with a different ending, that doesn't try to violently pull us into Frank's corner at the 11th hour, after we've spent two hours hating him.

I understand there are a couple arguments that mitigate what I'm saying a little bit. (That's classic Vancetastic for you -- make the opposing arguments in advance, almost like I don't want you to comment on this piece at all!) You could say that the real villains in this movie are the corrupt police officers, who are pretty much all arrested (or take their own lives) in those final ten minutes. And looked at that way, Lucas can assume a co-protagonist function, and the real antagonists still get theirs. You can also argue that race should be taken into consideration in the way we look at Frank. Maybe he gains sympathy simply by doing things that only Italians were previously capable of, and that we should view him more positively simply because of some kind of impulse toward affirmative action. Maybe his upbringing, of which we don't see much, and his oppression by society at large, is as responsible for making him who he is as a deep-seated personal malevolence.

But that doesn't feel like the movie I was watching. I was watching a movie in which Frank Lucas is an evil, evil bastard -- a clever, economic genius of a bastard, but an evil one nonetheless.

Until the end, when he suddenly isn't.

(One last thing I didn't like about Frank: His use of his catchphrase "My man." Every time he spoke it, I felt it was a strained attempt to create a pop culture catchphrase that was supposed to be bigger than the movie. I understand it was supposed to be ironic -- he said "My man" to people when his smile was fake, and he was just plotting how to remove them from the picture, by any means necessary. But the difference between this and a wise guy patting you on the back right before he whacks you is that Frank says "My man" to people who have just openly insulted him, meaning there was no alternate "surface" meaning, only the ironic one. I thought this reduced it from a potentially clever catchphrase into a mere gimmick used incongruously.)

Second Chance Verdict, American Gangster: A highly accomplished, gritty-looking mob vs. cops movie that bails out on its convictions right at the end.


simoncolumb said...

What a great post! I've only seen it once at the cinema when it first came out and was a little disillusioned with it but, with my love of gangster movies, denzel and ridley - and the soundtrack is great - there were so many reasons i considered buying it to reevaluate. There are some film, character films i call them, that focus on the character, whilst others focus moreso on narrative - a driving force behind a movie. The former is often more difficult to get the first time round because you want to know 'what happens next' - and so seek a strong fast-moving narrative, when the filmmaker only shows you the interesting parts to a character. On a second watch, you know the outcome - you know the narrative - so you can then truly appreicate the characters. I think American Gangster is in the character-based category and it gets better on multiple viewings. Wow, long comment ... I may even write a post about this...

Mike Lippert said...

Glad to see you liked it this time. I know I was one of those people who immediatly jumped to it's and Ridley's defense when you write that post. I have only seen it once, in the theatre so one of these days I'm going to get ou the DVD and watch the 3-hour extended version, which is very exciting to me. Very good review.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the positive feedback, guys!

Simon - I think that's an interesting distinction you point out. Surely, there are some movies where characterization is less important, where the characters are little more than pawn for the high-concept plot. However, in most cases, I'd think you'd eventually find out more about them -- like you say, perhaps on a repeat viewing.

Mike - Were you not bothered at all by the change in Lucas' character in the final ten minutes, or does it simply bother you so little that it's barely worth mentioning?

Mike Lippert said...

Vance-As I argued the first time around, I can't fault a movie for ending the way the story did in real life, which was with Lucas changing. Plus, for 2.5 hours I was wrapped up in the movie's spell so much that even if the last 10 lag a little, it's of little consequence.

Vancetastic said...

Okay -- thanks for the response. I guess I'm not arguing that they should have changed the ending, just that they should have prepared us better for it through subtle changes in the characterization of Lucas. But it's probably splitting hairs.

Don Handsome said...

but he didn't change that way. He was arrested at least once more trying to sell heroin. He maintains a hard-ass would-rather kill you disposition. I think the good natured and happily cooperative Frank at the end of the movie is a fabrication of convenience, which further muddled a confused and very problematic film. Sorry Vance, but I think you were right with your first reaction.

Vancetastic said...

Funny, Don, I thought your initial take on this film was that you liked it a lot MORE than I did, and I was the one trying to convince you of its shortcomings. It appears we've switched roles, though clearly I still feel pretty strongly about the shortcomings, having just written a good 2,000 words about them.

Don Handsome said... are 100% correct. When I revisited this movie last year, I was shocked by how inept it was. I see it as a bulky, over-simplified, too-convenient wreck...and now I feel betrayed by your reversal. Of course I kid, but I am glad that you kept it somewhat real in your revision. Also: even though I disagree with your reversal, I want to echo the sentiments of your other commentators...this write-up WAS extremely well done.

Vancetastic said...

I don't know if I would say it's "inept." I think it's plenty ept.

(I just wanted to make that joke.)

Hal said...

I really like the Second Chance Vance featurette.

And I'm glad you like American Gangster now. Though, I do sympathize with your complaints.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Hal!

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