The dark side of the American dream

The American Dream. It doesn't have to be defined for Americans to know what it means: scrappy entrepreneurship and tough business acumen, blended with sacrifice and hard work, resulting in solid if not fabulous wealth. Success stories abound, make the cover of magazines, and some, such as Donald Trump, have turned acquisition of stuff and money and property into entertainment.

When it comes to the American Dream, we're endlessly fascinated by it's dark side. This is not a world where there is a sprinkling of moral ambiguity. It's a world where beneath a patina of affluent glamour resides a soul shriveling rot, where any means justifies any end that makes money. Lots of money.

Hollywood has gone to this well repeatedly for scripts that are memorable, knowing that the American outlaw, an enduring archetype, will always appeal. Audiences will root for the bad guys if, in some way, they are worthy of redemption and possess a familiar if ruthless integrity. In the film "Heat," starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, De Niro's character, who is a stone cold bank robber, is someone audiences sympathize with. Call it the Robin Hood syndrome. "The Godfather" saga was ever fascinating for it's complex relationships and it's suggestion that the corruption that permeated the gangster world was also deeply embedded in all aspects of American life; it was simply a matter of degree.

Director Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" fits nicely into Hollywood's panoply of gangster genre films. There is, if course, nothing redemptive about Denzel Washington's nicely rendered Frank Lucas. The story, based on Lucas' life, follows the drug dealer as he climbs the ladder of success, achieving incredible wealth by swamping New York's Harlem with a pure, barely cut heroin called Blue Magic. To obtain pure product at wholesale prices, he goes directly to Southeast Asia, making his own deal and then importing the bricks back to America in the coffins of dead soldiers &

revealing a stunning level of corruption in the military and among civilians as packages of cash are handed out along the route home.

It's a ruthless business, and though Lucas was a loving son who buys his mother a mansion, employs his entire family, hands out turkeys at Thanksgiving, he also delivered to the black community an endless stream of death and destruction, capsizing lives, wrecking families as he pedaled his imported Magic.

In contrast to Lucas is Russell Crowe, who delivers a well crafted performance as Detective Richie Roberts, a New York cop, shunned by his fellow officers for being too honest. Yes, Roberts is honest to a fault when it comes to work; however, his moral code is clearly flawed as we learn that he cheats on his wife and ignores his young son. Roberts, not unlike Lucas, has compartmentalized his life and his ethics.

He does possess a keen intelligence (he attends law school at night and passes the New York bar). Tenaciously he begins tracking the New York drug trade and ever so gradually begins to close the noose on Lucas' empire. The film turns out not only to be an interesting character study, but a nifty police procedural, tension-filled and unrelenting.

Screenwriter Steven Zaillan does a masterful job of structuring the film, weaving both narratives into a coherent whole. It's been reported that he actually wrote two screenplays, one from the point of view of Lucas and the other from Robert's, and then merged the scripts.

Casting Denzel Washington in a role where the character is, in a very real sense, a psychopath, requires, at least initially, a suspension of disbelief. Washington's screen persona is always instantly likable, his smile and manner of speech disarming. However, he is also an actor who can reach deep within and draw forth someone profoundly lethal, brutal even, as he does in "American Gangster." And as he did to chilling effect in "Training Day." In both films he was despicable and completely corrupt; and every time he smiled you wanted to be his new best friend, no matter that in the opening scenes of "Gangster" he pours gasoline over a member of the competition followed by a lighted match. Is this a film of epic proportions? Perhaps not. But in the best tradition of gangster films, "American Gangster" is excellent entertainment.

'Lions for Lambs'

In "Lions for Lambs," Robert Redford clearly has a great deal to say about the current administration's stewardship of America. And not a great deal is positive. He does acknowledge, without reservation, the courage and devotion to duty our troops have displayed, having done all that has been asked of them and more.

Because Redford's milieu is the dramatic narrative and not the documentary, he has created a commercial movie which, in effect, is a long polemic wherein he weaves three stories together, each of them a tutorial of sorts, exploring what he believes have been the failures of our government, the press, and the public who would rather shop than sacrifice for a war regarded, now, as a train wreck.

Instead of using talking heads, experts all, opining about America's collective angst, Redford, portraying a college professor, sits in his office and engages a slacker student, brilliant but unconcerned about much beyond his own comfort and possible earning power, in what approaches a Socratic dialogue. A conversation that often seems stilted and staged. Ditto the scenes with Meryl Streep as a veteran journalist who has been called into an up-and-coming Senator's office for a breaking story on the administration's latest plan to win the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Everyone talks in this film. And talks.

The dialogue is smart and quick and the points valid and well written; however, little is fresh or new. Tune into to MSNBC, say, Keith Oberman, and you will hear exactly the same point of view. Or perhaps the Daly show, for those who like their news with comic relief.

Actually, Redford, who hasn't directed for seven years, could have made a far more interesting film if he had decided not to tell but show, and trusted the audience to draw their own conclusions. Or he could simply have appeared on PBS' Charlie Rose and spent a couple of hours sharing his views while challenged by Rose, who is certainly his equal in terms of intellect. That would have been far more compelling.

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