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.
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.