George Will

The cop Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe) who brought Lucas down had a personal life as disordered as his professional life was tidy. Roberts was dangerously honorable: He found almost $1 million in cash and turned it in, thereby convincing corrupt cops, of whom there were many at the time, that he might turn them in. The rewards of corruption were huge as New York City became, for several decades, a dystopia.

Around the middle of the 20th century, the cowboy, that solitary man living outside civilization, came to town as a private detective, often operating outside the law. Then in 1972, "The Godfather" movie managed to present the organization men of organized crime as paragons of individualism. Puzo called them "men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men." That was, of course, balderdash: Every Mafioso in the movie was utterly dominated by the hierarchy, at the apex of which sat Don Corleone.

In spite of its self-conscious coldbloodedness, "The Godfather" movie is sentimental. Its picture of Don Corleone judiciously administering the common law of gangsterdom is about as accurate a portrayal of organized crime as Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" is an accurate portrayal of the unwashed brutes who made the Middle Ages a good epoch not to have lived in.

"American Gangster," like "The Godfather," invites viewers to admire business acumen for its own sake -- when Lucas was brought down, the government seized assets worth $250 million -- and entices viewers into the moral vertigo of forgetting the human carnage among users of the high-quality heroin that Lucas' organizational skills enabled him to sell cheap. But the movie, to its credit, repeatedly and abruptly halts its manipulation of viewers by roughly yanking them back to the reality of suppurating needle-sores.

In "The Godfather," the visible victims were, so to speak, all in the family; they were criminals who had chosen their line of work because they liked it. In "American Gangster," the visible victims include the crying infant on the filthy mattress, next to the mother who has nodded off on a heroin high.

The labored and familiar facets of "American Gangster" -- facile cynicism about commercial practices and "family values" -- echo "The Godfather." The realism of "American Gangster," which is the more mature movie, is its own.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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