Film Review: Lansky (dir by Eytan Rockaway)


Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Harvey Keitel has only been nominated once for an Academy Award.

And, amazingly enough, he wasn’t nominated for any of the films for which he is best remembered. He wasn’t nominated for Mean Streets or Taxi Driver or any of his other collaborations with Martin Scorsese. He wasn’t nominated for playing the Wolf in Pulp Fiction or Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs. He was not nominated for The Piano. He certainly wasn’t nominated for baring his soul in Bad Lieutenant. Instead, Harvey Keitel’s only nomination was for playing real-life gangster Mickey Cohen in the 1991 Best Picture nominee Bugsy.

Bugsy was one of the many films to be made about the life of Bugy Siegel, the reputedly psychotic gangster who left New York for Hollywood and who later helped to create the wonderland of Las Vegas. In both the movie and real-life, Siegel was gunned down by his former associates, who felt that he was recklessly wasting their money out in the middle of the desert. It’s generally agreed that the order to murder Siegel was given by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, two of Siegel’s long-time friends and business partners. In Bugsy, Lansky was played by Ben Kingsley. Kingsley was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, whenever two actors from the same film are nominated for an Oscar, they usually end up canceling each other out. That’s what happened in the case of Bugsy, with both Kingsley and Keitel losing the Oscar to City Slickers‘s Jack Palance.

30 years after Busgy, Harvey Keitel once again acted out of the story of the death of Bugsy Siegel. Except, things time, Keitel played Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen was nowhere to be seen, and the film was called Lansky.

Of course, there’s more to Lansky than just the falling out with Bugsy Siegel. As you can tell from the film’s title, it attempts to deal with Lansky’s entire life. The film starts in 1979, with a friendly but terminally ill Meyer Lansky meeting with a writer named David Stone (Sam Worthington). David desperately needs the money that would come from writing the only authorized biography of Meyer Lansky. Lansky, knowing that he’s dying, wants to tell his story. Of course, Lansky has a few conditions. David can only publish the book after Lansky has died and David is not to talk to anyone about anything that Lansky tells him. David agrees.

From there, the film jumps back and forth in time. We watch the young Lansky (played by John Magaro) as he teams up with Lucky Luciano (Shane McRae) and Bugsy Siegel (David Cade) to change the face of organized crime. Along the way, he gets involved in the casino business, the CIA, and the Cuban revolution, and he fights Nazis at home and abroad. Lansky turns organized crime into a business and, as a result, becomes known as “the Mob’s accountant.” The FBI hounds him for almost his entire life, determined to discover where he’s hidden the millions of dollars that he’s rumored to have earned through his crimes.

While Lansky tells his story to David, the two of them form a slightly uneasy friendship Lansky is friendly and curteous but, as becomes clear as the film progresses, he’s still as capable of ordering a murder as ever. David, meanwhile, is being pressured by the FBI. They want him to become an informant and to press Lansky for information on where he’s hiding his money.

Lansky is a film that requires some patience. The first hour or so is a bit messy, with the film awkwardly trying to strike a balance between the flashbacks and the scenes of David talking to Lansky. At times, the film becomes a bit of an odd buddy picture, with Lansky offering David some unexpected life advice. However, once the FBI starts pressuring David, things pick up. The arrival of the FBI adds some much needed tension to the film’s storyline. As you watch the main agent (played by David James Elliott) pressure David into becoming an informant and essentially put his life at risk, it’s hard not to contrast Lansky with the men who are determined to put him away. Lansky may be a criminal but he has a code of ethics and, most importantly, he doesn’t harass innocents. The FBI, though, has no problem with bullying and manipulating informants and witnesses, all in the name of trying to figure out where a dying man is hiding his money. When the attention shifts from Lansky telling his story to Lansky outwitting the FBI, the film takes on an entirely new feel. When a smug FBI agent flies all the way to Israel in search of Lansky’s money, it’s impossible not to cheer a little when he gets outsmarted.

Due to the film’s flashback structure, Harvey Keitel is not in as much of Lasnky as you might expect. And yet he dominates the entire film. He perfectly captures both Lansky’s determination and his grim humor. Even facing death, Lansky is determined to keep control over every situation. In the film’s most powerful moments, he discusses what it’s like to be an outsider in America. Lansky knows that, as a Jew, he’ll never be fully accepted by the establishment. So, instead of begging for hand-outs, Lansky created his own establishment, one that operated in the shadows but which ultimately proved to be as successful as any corporation. When Lansky discovers that the American government is pressuring Israel to refuse to grant Lansky citizenship, Keitel perfectly captures both Lansy’s pain and his defiance. It all leads to a haunting final scene of Lansky on the beach. Appropriately enough, Meyer Lansky is alone.

Lansky is a both a portrait of a fascinating life and a tribute to the talent of Harvey Keitel. It may require some patience but that patience will be rewarded.

3 responses to “Film Review: Lansky (dir by Eytan Rockaway)

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 10/11/21 — 10/17/21 | Through the Shattered Lens

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