Rare is the gangster that reaches senior citizen status. The winner of the mafia endurance award goes to the renowned godfather, Meyer Lansky. Director/co-writer Eytan Rockaway and co-writer Robert Rockaway tell his story in the biopic Lansky. It’s a story within a story. A twofer, if you will.
The main tale is of down-on-his-luck writer David Stone (Sam Worthington). He’s estranged from his wife and daughter, traveling the country looking for that next big story. Hitting the potential lottery, Stone is summoned to Florida by Lansky (Harvey Keitel). He wants Stone to write his biography but has many strings attached, and in true mafia fashion, Lansky demands trust and loyalty.
Every morning, Stone and Lansky meet at a diner and talk about his life. Lansky controls what Stone can say and publish but is more than willing to open up “off the record” for context. We are then transported back in time to the beginnings of Lansky (John Magaro) and longtime associate Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (David Cade).
One thing I found refreshing about Lansky is the story structure. Rather than go down the traditional route of a dying Lansky laying on his death bed, giving his final declaration only shift to an extended flashback, the writers tell two stories to show that even as a senior, a mobster is still a mobster and can’t run from his past.
The flashback portion is pretty straightforward, following Lansky’s long career as the only Jewish member of the mafia. Lansky and Siegel made quite a formidable team. Siegel was the tough guy, and Lansky was the businessman. He knew the right alliances to form, and the two moved up quickly in the ranks.
“…wants Stone to write his biography but has many strings attached, and in true mafia fashion, Lansky demands trust and loyalty.”
Lansky boasts about how he helped the FBI during World War II by rooting out German spies in the U.S. and dispensing justice on behalf of his country and the Jewish people. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take long for the Feds to forget “Lansky the patriot” and see him once again as “Lansky, mafia don.” This was only the beginning of his power grab. Through contacts, Lansky and Siegel created the deadly Murder Inc. — assassins for hire, earned a seat at the table of the National Crime Syndicate, and finally the creation of Las Vegas (see Warren Beatty’s Bugsy).
Getting 50/50 billing with Lansky’s biography is the story of Stone. It wouldn’t take long before the FBI receives word that Lansky is talking to Stone about his life. Even though Lansky is old and retired in Florida, there are still millions of dollars unaccounted for, and there are still countless unprosecuted Mob crimes. So Lansky begins exploring FBI tactics and the lengths they’ll go to turn Stone into a snitch against his new boss.
Lansky is much more a true biopic versus a mafia movie. My guess is the budget made it cost-prohibitive to stage elaborate gangland-style set pieces. As such, the violence is toned down a bit, but it is still there.
Keitel is definitely the star as Lansky. He is still fairly intimidating and never flinches, knowing the FBI is nipping at his heels even as a senior citizen. Director Rockaway does a good job walking that line portraying Lansky as sympathetic but always keeping in mind that he is the monster responsible for the deaths of hundreds, though now retired.
Weirdly, the film’s biggest misstep is at the very end, when the title card tells us the sum of Lansky’s life was how much money Las Vegas generated and the number of jobs created by this manufactured desert oasis.
I appreciate the innovative way the Rockaways tell Lansky’s story. Staying away from most biopic tropes (that even The Irishman fell into), Lansky is a story worth watching. However, I’d love to see how this narrative would have played out if the filmmaker had been given a lot more money.
"…appreciate the innovative way the Rockaways tell Lansky's story."