Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eytan Rockaway
Writer: Eytan Rockaway
Story: Eytan Rockaway and Robert Rockaway
Cast: Sam Worthington, Harvey Keitel, John Magaro, David Cade, Minka Kelly, AnnaSophia Robb,
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/9/21
Opens: June 25, 2021

Since everyone and his uncle has seen Coppola’s “The Godfather,” everyone knows there is, or was, an Italian mafia—involved mostly in the import of illegal drugs, but also in bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling. Fewer people have seen the 1931 film “The Public Enemy” starring James Cagney as a hoodlum making money from bootlegging while his brother remained on the good side of the law. That is arguably the best movie about the Irish mafia. But did you know there was also a Jewish mafia? And what’s more, Meyer Lansky, its best known mobster, was successful in bringing together a coalition of Jews, Irish and Italians to share the wealth.

Now, Eytan Rockaway in his sophomore narrative film (his “The Abandoned” is a thriller with none of the historical complexities as “Lansky”) fills us in on the principal details of Meyer Lansky’s life. He passes over the earlier details of his life, that he was born in 1902 with the name Meier Suchowanski in the Russian empire (now Belarus), experiencing with antisemitism from the Cossacks, who would lop off the heads of Jews. This was instrumental in Lansky’s need to be in control.

Despite Lansky’s notoriety to this day, based partly on his partnership with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade) in the bootleg trade, he was never convicted of a crime and, in fact, FBI charges against him were dropped. What appears in this film is that his only crime was making money with gambling casinos in Florida, London, and most dramatically in Cuba. Ironically, in many states of the U.S., gambling casino are not only legal now, but give employment to two million and helping to fill the coffers for Uncle Sam.

Rockaway centers on David Stone (Sam Worthington), a writer who, having a need for money gets a call from Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel), asking him to write a book about his life. Considerable time is spent on writer and criminal, looking seriously into the life of the journalist a well, and the current state of affairs in a man who is now free from prosecution but told that he is dying and wants the world to know his side of the story. In most scenes, however, Meyer Lansky’s most active years are played by the Ohio-born, thirty-eight-year old John Magaro.

While the story heads from the coffee-shop interviews to the decades of Lansky’s business in Murder Inc., the telling is chronological from 1940, from when Lansky was thirty-eight to the time just before his death from lung cancer in 1983. The most impressive scene takes place in the Yorkville section of New York, populated at the time largely by German-Americans. The German-American bund, a group dedicated to keeping America out of the war, is holding a Nazi rally, big swastika flags on the walls surrounding a speaker who cannot think of enough adjectives to describe what good Nazis should think about Jews. So in strides a gang under Lansky: on elderly member gets to the microphone to announce that he is a Jew. The m.c. makes the mistake of calling him “scum,” at which point all hell breaks lose. Not a single German-American is left standing. It pays to quote from the Wikipedia article on Meyer Lansky…

“The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Adolf Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us but we went into action. We threw some of them out the windows. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

Lansky is a superb negotiator who gets a job to do for his country. The Office of Naval Intelligence Operation Underworld recruits criminals to watch out for German infiltrators and submarine-borne saboteurs. In return for the government’s freeing “Lucky” Luciano from prison over a decade before he would be eligible for parole for tax evasion, the Mafia would provide security for the warships being built in New York Harbor. One of the most violent scenes focuses on two German spies hanging from a rope, blood streaming throughout their bodies. (The scene may remind some of us that President Kennedy at one point twenty years later allegedly worked with the Mafia in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro.)

The most drop-dead sight of luxury is a replica of Havana’s Colonial Hotel, after Cuban President Fulgencio Batista agrees to turn the gambling business over to Lansky, which made that capital city, or at least the richest part, look like Disneyworld. Castro is to replace Batista, who flees to Spain and closes down the casinos. End of Mafia penetration of that Caribbean island.

If “Lansky” does not draw the incredible reviews enjoyed by “The Godfather,” it may be that Coppola was among the first to penetrate organized crime in a spectacular manner, using actors well known in our country from Al Pacino to Marlon Brando, from Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton to James Caan. Ultimately, “Lansky” gives us a rather thorough picture of the man, strangely enough about the goodness in his character : he refuses to rig the casino, frustrates the Nazis who might otherwise have successfully penetrated the East Coast, he willing to be truthful to a writer who is pledged to publish only after Lansky’s death. Even asking discovering that David Stone is giving information to the Feds, he remains on friendly terms.

119 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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