Although build around an arguably obvious rise of a drug lord/pursuit by a cop plot, it scores by depicting how thoroughly drugs permeated U.S. culture from the 1960's through the entire 1970's setting, and how so much of it was fueled by the Vietnam War -- both the desperate degradation bourne by the constant images on the television screen and the actual opium highway via U.S. military transport.
But the real story the rides like a bandit throughout American Gangster is that of corruption. American was a drugged up nation by that time, what with all the legal speed, barbs, alcohol and cigarette society that developed from WWII through to the 1980's, then LSD developed by the CIA and released to the streets (legal in the early 1960's), pot (although not as widespread as today, treated like a narcotic), some coke (more late 70's-late 80's, Reagan era drug including it's bastard child, crack), and a whole influx of heroin. While this movie doesn't show every single person on some sort of mood alterer -- Denzel Washington's drug boss Frank Lucas doesn't partake in more than the social drink -- it chooses instead to portray a variated landscape of corruption.
Early in the picture we learn that Russell Crowe's Det. Richie Roberts, is a mess with his personal life -- the exact opposite of family man Frank -- but scrupulously honest as a cop. Lucas, of course, is supplying the city and northern New Jersey with life-sucking heroin, but we just get a couple of horrific, passing junkie montages, nothing following a junkie character all the way to empathy. And at the far end of the moral scales is brazenly corrupt Detective Trupo (a second great turn this season for No Country's Josh Brolin), who moves around with a posse of corrupt coppers in suits.
The movie implies that virtually all of the NYC/NJ metro area police force was on one take or another, hence the physical danger to Richie for not taking money. The resultant facts bear out similarly. But the question is always asked, what's the price for that character. How much money, how much respect, how much self-respect, how much hero worship to come aboard. How much family.
And for almost every character, it's not a tough decision. Whether it's already being corrupt or entering into the family business, it's just everyday evil. In some cases it's the blind eye tolerance, most notably with Frank Lucas' mother, played by Ruby Dee.
What's great about her performance is that at first you think maybe she's in this very small role just because she's the valedictorian, the long beloved breakthrough career with her husband, the late great Ossie Davis. Then, late in the picture, there's a scene where you realize why she was hired. It's because she can stand up to Denzel. No problem. And not many can.
You can see what it does for him to be opposite her, where with everyone else but Crowe, with whom he spends most of the movie separate, he's the mature, esteemed, royal guy in the room, the motor completely driving his half of the movie, star power.
Crowe, on the other hand, does another one of his chameleon performances, channeling a very boyish, unpretentiously earnest working class cop who's striving to make a little more of himself. As with Michael Mann's Heat, these are two equivalent leading men (Washington gets his name first in the titles, fittingly as the title character) each owning half the movie building up to finally meeting, what we're waiting for, the two facing off, even a showdown.
With Heat is was the scene in the restaurant between DeNiro and Pacino, which was engaging without being cathartic. In American Gangster, it's a much bigger release when they first appear in a shot together, and the ensuing act-off is almost less important.
Very cinematic, very big screen stuff. And what may be director Ridley Scott's greatest accomplishment is that he's subsumed his more obvious trademark stylizations. You'd be forgiven for thinking this might have been directed by any one of a dozen other directors, but it's his confidence to just "shoot the story" this time (no doubt eased by service to the pro Steven Zaillian script) that makes it work. The movie benefits from his gift for big images, big performances and iconic performances, but the movement is so fleet, without feeling either jumpy or overly graphic, that it feels unforced, as hip like the era.
I even forgave the play of "Across 110th Street" after it was on both the original 1972 classic and Tarantino's Jackie Brown, because that Bobby Womack song is so damned cool.
With any resonating period piece one has what the metaphoric connection to our times, what element of our contemporary psyche is it stroking, what's the reflection of. I do think analogies can be too stretched (is No Country for Old Men really construable as a metaphor for the Iraq War? ) but I can also see how we believe the world of Scott's movie, even our hollowed American Past, because of the rife corruption of the current Administration and the GOP Congress that was so long working in tandem. We've had those months this year, last year, the year before, when it seemed like a country of a scandal a day.
Sure, all those cops were on the take. America was on the take. And we want that celluloid catharsis because we're trying to convince ourselves that somehow, someday, we'll clean up our collective act.
For a moment.