American Gangster has been compared to Heat, another cat-and-mouse crime film that barely let its twin-titan leads even meet up. This crackling entertainment might be even more structurally daring: Not only do Denzel Washington’s dapper Harlem drug lord and Russell Crowe’s shlubby Jersey cop not come face-to-face until the final reel, but neither is aware of the other’s existence until the movie’s halfway done. In a commentary on the new three-disc Gangster set, writer Steven Zaillian says he solved some script problems by writing two screenplays — one following Washington, one tracking Crowe — and then combining them. Surely this canny twofer approach will be taught in many a future screenwriting seminar.
Just don’t expect to see Gangster show up on the syllabus for any journalism classes. Recently, serious doubts have been raised about nearly every significant plot point, which may diminish the thrills for returning viewers, depending on your tolerance for truthiness. Some of the fudging is inconsequential (Crowe’s character gets caught up in a custody battle, when the real Richie Roberts was childless at the time). Other disputes seem major (several police swear they, not Roberts, first busted heroin kingpin Frank Lucas’ chops; one supplier has called Lucas’ claims of smuggling smack from Thailand in coffins ”a lie”). You might expect the filmmakers to defend artistic license in the copious extras — which include commentary, documentaries, a video from Jay-Z’s tie-in album, and two versions of the film. Instead, they repeatedly vouch for the movie’s veracity. ”This is all real,” swears director Ridley Scott, in an audio commentary; ”I didn’t have to make stuff up for this,” emphasizes Zaillian, recorded separately. ”Every word is true,” insists the now-aged Lucas in a Dateline special, where host Matt Lauer cheerfully assumes that every plot twist is gospel.
Last month, three ex-Drug Enforcement Administration agents filed a class-action suit, angered by an epilogue claiming that three-quarters of NYC’s ”Drug Enforcement Agency” were put away thanks to Lucas’ testimony — when, by the government’s count, there wasn’t a single conviction. It’s startling, then, when one DVD extra is a video of an early meeting between Scott, Zaillian, and Roberts, and Zaillian says: ”I’m just asking, Richie, can we actually say…you know how you read stuff at the end of a film that actually says his information led to 150 convictions?” Roberts says: ”Sure.” And you get the queasy feeling that might’ve been the extent of the vetting. (Regarding the lawsuit’s claims of defamation and libel, Universal says Gangster portrays a fictional federal operation.) Should we expect our storytellers and dream stylists to moonlight as fact-checkers? Maybe not — unless, of course, they plan to cram their DVDs with boasts about their verisimilitude. B