The Prohibition is, perhaps, the second most explored subject after World War II. Aimed at being a “noble experiment” as a part of a larger temperance movement, the US Senate ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, effectively banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors during the first couple of decades of the 20th century. When such a sought after commodity is taken away from the populace, it opens up a viable Business opportunity for bootleggers and backdoor distributors. This was the time when the notorious Mafia characters such as Al Capone, Frank Nitti were at their peak. Heard those names before ? Well, that’s probably because this period gave us one of the best films made on the era. Road to Perdition, directed by Sam Mendes, paved the way for film-makers to explore the subject like no one else had done before. The Academy Award winning cinematography delved into the human part of the otherwise violent and bloody past of the gangsters.
For more about Prohibition, check out this article: The History Channel – About Prohibition
Ben Affleck’s Live by Night is based in the very same universe where Al Capone, Frank Nitti and Michael Sullivan exist. Joseph Coughlin (played by Affleck himself) is a young World War I veteran who has seen enough blood-shed and mindless rules for a lifetime. His sense of morality has been irreparably convoluted after the war and he is now attracted towards a lifestyle which would make him an outlaw, not for a dire need for money but for the very act of it. He robs small banks with his two partners and frequents the company of Albert White who is one of the two gang-lords controlling the illegal distribution of Liquor in Boston. In a society where pride and ego rule the game, Coughlin in his own foolhardy manner falls in love with White’s young girlfriend Emma (played by Sienna Miller) who secretively reciprocates behind White’s back. Masa Pescatore, the other gang-lord in the city reaches out to Coughlin with an offer to join his outfit. When Coughlin outrightly rejects the proposition, Pescatore threatens to divulge the secret love-affair to White. Coughlin becomes wary but walks out with the confidence that White had no reason to doubt him and would believe his word over that of his arch-rival. At this point, the story becomes a tad predictable. As expected, White finds out about the affair and beats Coughlin to an inch of his life. However, Coughlin survives as his recovery is fueled by revenge. He goes to work for Pescatore promising his allegiance to him. Instead of using him to fight the Boston wars, Coughlin is sent to Ybor City where the market is predominantly ruled by the Cubans, Spaniards and Dominicans. He is soon able to establish a blistering business for his boss through a shrewd partnership with the ruling parties. However, the newfound business was fated for some unforeseen challenges which would require sacrifice and loss.
Affleck’s venture into the world of Mafia and gangsters is a story which is straight as an arrow. There are no sub-plots or complex characters. There are just a series of events that are the manifestation of cause and effect. Our protagonist walks from one aspect to another without so much as a backward glance. People seem to fleet in and out of his life like shadows as we, as an audience, are navigated through several sequences of his life – from high-octane car chases (reminiscent of the game Mafia ) to bank robberies to establishing casinos and to battling the Klu Klux Klan. Affleck’s pet project of, probably, creating a grand Prohibition era narrative is largely superficial, lacking the appeal and pace of The Town which was one of his better films.
Keeping aside the finer flaws of the film, Live by Night is a decent story spanning the lifetime of one person’s perspective of the world. The story is consistent throughout and convincingly portrays how actions, even the smallest, have consequences. Robert Richardson’s stark photography is haunting and carries the charm that we have come to love in The Aviator and Hugo. Affleck works hard in all his productions and 2016 has been a prolific year for him. With all its misgivings, the film is a genuine attempt to tell a story about the people and times of the violent era.
gobblpoint: This is not as classy as the Godfather nor is it as dark as Road to Perdition but it surely knows where it stands with the story. Has everything that you would expect from a Mafia movie.
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