Murder Inc. gangster Meyer Lansky has featured in over a dozen Hollywood movies and television series from Lee Strasberg in The Godfather (1972) to Ben Kingsley in Bugsy (1991) and Dustin Hoffman in The Lost City (2015) so you could be asking why do we need another one? And it’s a good question because this part docu-drama, while recounting the well-known aspects of the mobster’s career, also examines less obvious areas as well as bringing the story up-to-date in a duel of wits between Lansky (Harvey Keitel) and the F.B.I. still chasing him for $300 million it presumes he has hidden away.
The movie is framed by journalist David Stone (Sam Worthington) interviewing Lansky about his life. This turns out to be far more interesting than previously portrayed. Sure, there’s plenty of executions, but Lansky was also the most financially acute of gangsters, taking the business legitimate in the fashion of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, realising that rather than killing businessmen who could not pay their debts it was more sensible to take over their businesses and improve them, and in order to keep everything above board when contracted to oversee all the casinos in Cuba refusing to rig machines in the house’s favour.
He’s also got a crippled son whose illness he perceives as a mathematical equation and is convinced he can beat the odds. In the course of his interviews, Stone falls for a honey trap and is blackmailed/bribed by the F.B.I. So tension is raised by the government agency hovering in the background, the mystery of the missing millions, and Stone’s fears that Lansky will find out he is being betrayed.
Biopics succeed or failed based on what aspects of the subjects life they choose to cover. All the big names are here – Al Capone (Robert Walker Branchaud), Lucky Luciano (Shane McRae), Salvatore Maranzano (Jay Giannone), Bugsy Siegel (David Cole) – but we also delve into territory almost foreign to the gangster genre with Lansky’s patriotism leading him to root out Nazi spies and sympathizers during world War Two, in return for which he secures the release from prison of Lucky Luciano. His return to Israel is scuppered by U.S.-Israel relations. And, no matter his courtesy and manners, he’s also a scumbag of the first order, committing wife Anne (AnnaSophia Robb) to a psychiatric hospital because she has the audacity to blame him for his crimes.
Adding some depth is the “currency” of traded favours, that the U.S. government had little compunction in utilising his services at a time when it was trying to crack down on organised crime. Even the ageing Lansky is clever enough to outwit his pursuers.
But, of course, movie length works against the film. It would have been better as a limited series, exploring the man’s entire career. Even so, it certainly provides new insight into the mind of a gangster who was a businessman, in the correct term of the word, first and foremost. In another world, he might have been acclaimed as the man who pioneered a gambling industry now worth $250 billion annually to the U.S. economy.
Harvey Keitel (The Irishman, 2019) shows no sign of calling time on a career over half a century old and his bemused take on the gangster is solid work. Sam Worthington (Fractured, 2019) is excellent as the compromised journalist trying to keep family and finances together. Look out for David Cade (Into the Ashes, 2019) as Lansky’s lifelong buddy, Minka Kelly (She’s in Portland, 2020) as the deceitful girlfriend and AnnaSophia Robb (Words on Bathroom Walls, 2020) as the showgirl who realises marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be.
This was something of a personal project for writer-director Eytan Rockaway (The Abandoned, 2015) since his father was the journalist in the film. Rockaway’s approach is an interesting twist on the gangster film and he elicits strong performances all round. The final scene you won’t see coming.