WASHINGTON -- "American Gangster" opened last weekend and many of those who bought tickets -- $43.6 million worth from Friday through Sunday -- surely came away feeling as Mark Twain did when he said his memory was so powerful he could remember things that never even happened. Many moviegoers must have thought: I remember seeing this brand new movie before.
They did. Its emulations of "The Godfather" are obviously intended to be obvious. But these genuflections to the archetype make "American Gangster" more, not less, interesting as a symptom of something permanent in the American mind -- cynicism for sentimentalists.
In "The Godfather," bloody murders of Michael Corleone's rivals occur while the movie cuts back and forth from the mayhem to him in church. In "American Gangster," brutalities ordered by Frank Lucas are carried out as he brings a turkey on a platter to a table around which his extended family has gathered in a Thanksgiving tableau that mimics a famous Norman Rockwell painting. Message: Morality can be compartmentalized; family values can coexist with criminality.
Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" -- one of the best-selling novels in the four centuries since Cervantes essentially invented the genre -- has an epigraph from Balzac: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." In the novel, some rival Mafiosos meet in a bank, beneath a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, patron saint of American commerce, who, Puzo wrote, "might have approved of this peace meeting being held in a banking institution. Nothing was more calming, more conducive to pure reason, than the atmosphere of money."
In "American Gangster," Frank Lucas, proud of the purity of his Blue Magic heroin, upbraids a dealer for selling a less-pure product under that name, denouncing the "trademark infringement" that damages "the brand." Message: A drug kingpin can master MBA-speak; the line between commerce and crime is blurry.
Lucas, played by Denzel Washington with a grace alternately feline and feral, really lived in the Harlem of the 1970s. He rose to dominate New York City's heroin trade by cutting out the (white Mafia) middlemen, buying heroin directly from Southeast Asian producers and having it shipped to America in military aircraft -- eventually, in the caskets of Vietnam casualties.