July 7, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Eytan Rockaway
Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami, New York state, Israel and Switzerland, the dramatic film “Lansky” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: Notorious gangster Meyer Lansky tells his life story to a journalist who wants to write Lansky’s official biography, while an ambitious FBI agent wants the journalist to breach confidentiality ethics to give information about Lansky to the FBI.
Culture Audience: “Lansky” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about famous American mobsters.
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has mastered the art of making movies about American mobsters. “Lansky,” about real-life 20th century crime boss Meyer Lansky, is one of numerous cheap and trite imitations of a Scorsese gangster film. “Lansky” is not a terrible movie, but it’s so formulaic that it’s often quite dull.
“Lansky” (written and directed by Eytan Rockaway) makes a half-hearted attempt to appear neutral about how complicated Lansky was. But in the end, the movie glorifies his murderous mayhem and almost justifies it by putting a lot of emphasis on how his corrupt business dealings generated a lot of money for local economies. The entire tone of the film is, “Never mind how many people were slaughtered because of Lansky, because he was a godfather of the gambling industry that’s given people a lot of jobs and boosted tourism.”
The 1999 HBO film “Lansky,” directed by John McNaughton and starring Richard Dreyfuss as Meyer Lansky, was a more conventional biopic that focused on Lansky in his prime. Rockaway’s “Lansky” movie attempts to take more creative risks by having it be about Lansky (played by Harvey Keitel) toward the end of his life and telling his story for a possible biography that he wants published after his death. Lansky died of lung cancer in 1983, at the age of 80.
In the production notes for “Lansky,” Rockaway says that his father “had the opportunity to interview [Lansky] just before he died. Meyer was a husband, father, friend, killer, genius, criminal, patriot and the founder of the largest crime organization in American history … He is both the protagonist and antagonist of this story. This film is not about loving or hating this man, it is about understanding him.”
Rockaway also admits in the “Lansky” production notes: “Growing up with a father who was an historian with expertise in the history of crime and the underworld, I was always intrigued by the adventurous and dangerous lives of gangsters. That dark and elusive underworld, with its own rules and codes of conduct operating in the shadows of civilized society, was fascinating. As a young boy, it sounded more like a fantasy world rather than historical reality.”
The movie tends to over-glamorize Lansky’s life and shuts out any depiction of the long-term damage of his crimes, except for how it made his wife angry at him and ruined their marriage. There’s almost no thought given to his victims. Although there are scenes that depict the brutal violence of Lansky’s crimes, he’s rarely shown actually doing the dirty work because the movie mainly shows other people carrying out murders and assaults for him.
In order to work his way up to being a mob boss with that type of power, this “Lansky” movie glosses over all the brutal crimes he had to commit along the way when he was a henchman, not the boss. And the movie barely mentions Lansky’s legal problems. As an adult, he only spent a couple of months in jail, but he was still very entangled in the court system because of frequent accusations (assault and tax evasion, to name a few) against him.
The other protagonist of “Lansky” is a fictional character named David Stone (played by Sam Worthington), a down-on-his luck journalist who travels to Miami in 1981, because he has a chance to interview Lansky for a biographical book on Lansky. The movie switches back and forth between what happens in 1981 and what happens in Lansky’s storytelling version of his life prior to 1981. By 1981, Lansky already knew that he was dying of lung cancer.
Lansky also knows everything about Stone’s background, including his education (Stone is a Princeton graduate), his work history (including being a crime reporter of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in Indiana) and his personal life. Stone is having financial problems and is currently separated from his wife Christina, nicknamed Chrissie. They have two underage children together: a daughter named Eva and a son named Jack. Stone’s family members are not seen in the movie, but Stone is shown having phone conversations with Christina and Eva.
When Stone and Lansky meet for the first time at a diner in Miami, Lansky is firm in telling Stone that everything that Lansky says in the interviews will be “off the record,” unless Lansky approves it. Lansky stipulates that he doesn’t want this biography to be published until after Lansky’s death. “Betray me and there will be consequences,” warns Lansky. “I hope our collaboration will be a successful one.”
Lansky’s life story in this movie begins in Lansky’s hometown of New York City in 1912, when Lansky was 10 years old and developed a fascination with numbers and dice games played on the street. The movie doesn’t mention that Lansky was born in the Russian Empire to a Polish Jewish family who immigrated to the United States, when he was 10 years old. As an example of how this movie tends to glorify Lansky, it completely skips over any heinous stories about how Lansky paid his dues as a henchman while working his way up the ranks in New York’s Italian mafia.
Instead, the movie goes straight to when a young Lansky (played by John Magaro) was already a trusted right-hand person for mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by Shane McRae), who was Lansky’s mentor. In this flashback scene, the movie “Lansky” mistakenly puts the year as 1918, when Lansky was just 16 years old. In reality, Lansky didn’t reach this level of mafia authority until he was in his 20s. Luciano’s criminal activities were funded by operating gambling businesses, which is also how Lansky ended up making his fortune.
The friendship between Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Siegel (played by David Cade) is also depicted in the movie. As Lansky explains to Stone, Lansky and Siegel were like brothers. Lansky handled the numbers, while Siegel was the enforcer in their mafioso activities. Predictably violent gangster scenes of torture and murder are in the movie, which includes Lansky’s influential involvement in the crime organizations Murder Inc. and National Crime Syndicate.
As an up-and-coming gangster, Lansky met a woman named Anne (played by AnnaSophia Robb), who would become his wife and the mother of his children. (In real life, her name was Anna Citron. She and Lansky eventually got divorced, but their divorce is not in this movie.) Their first meeting is depicted as an impromptu “double date” situation, when Lansky and Siegel were at a restaurant. Anne and her friend Elise happen to be at the same restaurant, are introduced to Lansky by Siegel, and join the two men for dinner.
When Anne and Elise ask Lansky and Siegel what they do for a living, Siegel and Lansky say they’re in the “truck rental business.” But as their conversation goes on, it becomes pretty obvious that Lansky and Siegel are involved in criminal activities. It makes Elise nervous, and she leaves, but Anne decides to stay because she tells Elise that these two strangers “seem nice.” It’s implied that Anne, who less than smart, is attracted to the “bad boy” type.
The next time that Anne and Lansky are seen together, they’re married parents to a disabled toddler son named Buddy, their eldest child, who was born with an impaired ability to walk. When a doctor tells Anne and Lansky that Buddy will have to wear a leg brace for the rest of his life, Lansky takes the news very hard. He sees it as a sign of weakness that Buddy was born disabled, but Lansky eventually accepts it and is depicted as someone who is devoted as he can be to his children. (The movie shows that Anne and Lansky eventually had two sons and a daughter.)
But things get worse for Anne, because she becomes miserable in the marriage, Most of the later scenes between Anne and Lansky show them getting into shouting matches and physical fights. She hurls insults at him for being a murderer, while he doesn’t want to hear this truth, and he gets angry. Lansky, who admits to Stone that he was often unfaithful to Anne because he it made him “feel good,” seems to think that Anne should just shut up and be happy with all the wealth that he’s been able to provide for their family.
The movie shows how Lansky’s wealth increased considerably when he got the opportunity to oversee the gambling industry in Cuba. And, according to Lansky, he was an unsung hero in fighting Nazis before and during World War II. There’s a very hokey scene in the movie of some of Lansky’s thugs breaking up a pro-Nazi, German-American Bund meeting in Yorkville, New York, in 1937, and getting into a bloody brawl that ends with the Nazis being defeated. It’s mentioned in the movie that Lansky was behind several disruptions of these types of Nazi rallies in New York in the 1930s and 1940s.
Not only is Lansky depicted as a great American patriot in the movie, he’s also portrayed as a Jew who takes pride in uplifting his family’s Israeli roots by getting involved in funding weapons for the Israeli military. It’s a movie that shows Lansky practically being an American diplomat to Israel. He has conversations with Israeli government leaders, such as Golda Meier, who is depicted as politician who allied herself with Lansky and later turned against him when his gangster reputation became too scandalous.
It can be argued that because Lansky is telling his life story in the movie, he’s naturally going to exaggerate or make himself look like a hero. But the movie lazily goes along with this concept. A more interesting approach to the movie would have been to put the fictional character of Stone to better use as a journalist—someone who would and should do his own independent investigation rather than just taking Lansky’s word for everything.
Instead, the “Lansky” movie has a useless subplot about Stone getting sexually involved with a woman named Maureen Duffy (played by Minka Kelly), who’s staying at the same motel in Miami. There’s a scene with Stone getting into a fist fight with Maureen’s jealous ex-boyfriend Ray Hutchinson (played by James Devoti), a drug dealer who’s convinced that Maureen was the snitch who set up him up to be arrested. It’s a giant clue/foreshadowing of what comes later in the movie about Maureen, who is never seen again soon after her secret is revealed.
In fact, “Lansky” is such a cliché American gangster movie that the only two female characters with significant speaking roles in the movie (Anne and Maureen) are only there to fulfill the role of wife or lover, which often translates to “nagging shrew” or “sexy temptress.” It’s all so hackneyed, boring and unimaginative. Robb and Kelly are perfectly adequate in their acting, but they don’t have much to do beyond the stereotypical roles that were written for them in this movie.
There’s another subplot, taking place in 1981, of an ambitious FBI agent named Frank Rivers (played by David James Elliott) who’s determined to find out if the rumor is true that Lansky has $300 million hidden away somewhere. And so, there’s a scene of Agent Rivers trying to convince his reluctant boss R.J. Campell (played by James Moses Black) to give him more budget money to investigate. And it should come as no surprise that the FBI finds out what Stone is doing in Miami. How it all plays out is very predictable.
The acting in “Lansky” isn’t particularly outstanding—Keitel has played a gangster so many times in movies, he can do it in his sleep—but Magaro as the young Lansky stands out as the one who’s best able to convey some character depth. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue falls into cornball territory, which lessens the impact of the violent scenes. And the movie’s pacing gets sluggish in the last third of the film.
The dialogue spewed by the elderly Lansky often makes him look less like a gangster reflecting on his sordid life and more like someone who’s trying to be a life coach/therapist for Stone. In one scene, Lansky tells Stone that they’ve both had lifelong insecurities about feeling like outsiders because their fathers rejected them. Lansky’s father never approved of his son’s criminal lifestyle, while Stone’s father abandoned his family when Stone was a child.
And then there are the preachy platitudes that Lansky imparts to Stone, as if Lansky is giving some kind of sermon. In one scene, Lansky lectures: “When you lose all your money, you lose nothing. When you lose your health, you lose something. When you lose your character, you lose everything.” Says the man responsible for an untold number of murders and other destruction of people’s lives.
“Lansky” was made for a certain audience that loves to see gangsters glorified on screen. However, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to go beyond the usual mobster biopic tropes, because there’s no one in the movie who challenges or investigates Lansky’s version of events. As much as writer/director Rockaway might say that this movie is not about “loving or hating” Lansky, the movie essentially puts Lansky up on a pedestal in a loving way, in an effort to give Lansky “legendary” status.
Vertical Entertainment released “Lansky” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 25, 2021.