“Is there such a thing as organised crime?’ is a key, repeated line in Eytan Rockaway’s above-par gangster story, which tells the familiar story of underworld accountant Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel). That’s an important idea, because in the US in the 1950’s, there was a resistance to acknowledging that organised crime was a thing, and that reluctance created a response lag that’s still felt to this day. Back in the day, the likes of Al Capone and Meyer Lansky did well from the changing industrial and economic landscape, and this bio-pic captures a febrile atmosphere in the 50’s, cannily set against the contrasting cool of the early 80’s setting as Lansky unfolds his story.
We start in Miami circa 1981 with David Stone (Sam Worthington), a writer who has marital issues, financial problems. He’s written about politics before, but getting a break on an extended interview with Lansky plunges him into uncharted waters. Lansky agrees to spill his story, which takes in everything from anti-Nazi activities, Golda Meir and even the notorious Murder Inc, and he’s got a view on posterity; sure, a few people got knocked off along the way, but Lansky is fiercely proud of much of what he did, during WWII and beyond. But Stone doesn’t click that he’s being set-up by the Feds, keen to worm incriminating evidence from Lansky that the older man is keen to conceal.
A genuine danger for any writer is an invitation to ghost-write criminal life-stories; I’ve had to work my way out of a few tight corners, and it’s no surprise to find that Stone is a fictional version of the director’s own father, who interviewed Lansky at length. Rockaway’s film therefore has two parallel narratives to mine; a narrated biopic of Lansky’s exploits, with John Magaro doing well as the younger man, and Stone’s increasing paranoia as he begins to wonder who he can trust. There’s also a on-going question about a missing three million dollars that nags away at the narrative; as with the recent Capone, the solution reveals that sometimes the myth is more dramatic that the kitchen-sink reality.
Lansky came out smack in the middle of a pandemic, but home-viewers should be able to engage with a narrative that covers ground familiar from The Godfather, Bugsy and more, but re-invigorates the clichés by making Lansky far more than just a hood. What it is to be an American, a Patriot, or a Jew are all under discussion; ‘History doesn’t always repeat itself’ Stone notes, although Lansky certainly seems to have beaten the odds when it came to getting punished for his crimes. A spare, violent but provocative evocation of two eras, Lansky features a terrific performance from Keitel, making something recognisably human from a complex character who has been played once too often as a cartoon villain.