Jewish mobster ‘Lansky’ comes to menacing life in clever biopic

CATE MARQUIS, Special to the Jewish Light

All people want to be the hero of their own stories.

In “Lansky,” Jewish-American gangster Meyer Lansky tells his side of the story to a down-on-his-luck writer who meets daily with the retired mob boss at a restaurant near his Florida home.

Lansky (Harvey Keitel), who has a terminal illness, reaches out to David Stone (Sam Worthington) to write his biography, the “true story,” as Lansky puts it. The writer is struggling with money problems and the breakup of his marriage, so he is dismayed to learn that, under threat of being killed, he cannot publish or reveal anything he hears until the gangster dies.

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Meanwhile, the FBI is on the writer’s trail, hoping to pressure him into divulging information that will lead them to a multi-million-dollar pile of money that the mobster supposedly has stashed. It is a reasonable assumption on the FBI’s part given that the mathematically minded Lansky was known as the “mob’s   accountant.”

Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky in Eytan Rockaway’s crime thriller biopic “Lansky.” Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Lansky was a major crime world figure, the co-founder of Murder, Inc., an organization of professional hitmen, and the so-called National Crime Syndicate, which built a gambling empire in Las Vegas, Cuba and elsewhere. If you are a history buff or a fan of countless mobster movies and TV shows such as “Boardwalk Empire,” Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano are names that will ring a bell.

Writer/director Eytan Rockaway has cleverly crafted a mix of crime thriller and biopic in “Lansky.” But a couple of things set this gangster movie apart from the countless others. First, Lansky tells his own story.

Second is the source material. Rockaway based his script partly on the work of his historian father, Robert A. Rockaway, professor emeritus of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and author of the nonfiction “But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.”

That grounding in authenticity, a willingness to show a more complicated picture, the gangster recounting his life from his own morally gray point of view and a first-rate cast make this an intriguing and entertaining film.

Keitel, who is Jewish, plays the older Lansky, a brilliant choice by Rockaway given the actor’s long history playing bad guys. Keitel brings a combination of charm and menace to Lansky, plus a sense that the wheels are always turning in his calculating, mathematical mind. Keitel convincingly plays a man who sees the world in shades of moral gray and presents his choices as just good business decisions. Plus, the Brooklyn-born actor adds a little extra playing a character who grew up on New York’s tough East Side.

From left, Sam Worthington as David Stone and Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky in Eytan Rockaway’s crime thriller biopic “Lansky.” Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The story unfolds on two tracks, in the present as Lansky tells his story to Stone while the FBI circles in on them, and in flashbacks that re-create events in Lansky’s life. In these period scenes, the young Lansky is played wonderfully by John Magaro, an actor with both Italian and Jewish heritage, who was so good in the award-winning “First Cow” (2019).

The personal history that Keitel as the aged Lansky relates covers not just his bloody crime career but his personal life, a surprising patriotism and a commitment to the new-born state of Israel. It’s complicated stuff.

The cast includes AnnaSophia Robb, who does an excellent job as Lansky’s first wife, Anne; Shane McRae as Charles “Lucky” Luciano; and David Cade as Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. Minka Kelly plays Maureen, a woman Stone meets at the cheap motel where he is staying, and David James Elliot plays determined FBI agent Frank Rivers. Rockaway has a walk-on role as an assistant to Golda Meier, who becomes part of the story later in the tale.

Minka Kelly as Maureen and Sam Worthington as David Stone in Eytan Rockaway’s crime thriller biopic “Lansky.” Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The film does an excellent job with the flashback scenes, capturing the time with wonderful period details and fine, rich-toned photography. Magaro is perfect as the younger Lansky, often a calming, cool-headed figure with the hotheaded Siegel and the other underworld figures, but cold and calculating in his decisions. These sequences often focus on Lansky’s family life, his love of his children, particularly his disabled son, and his rocky relationship with his fiery wife, Anne.

As he tells his tale, Keitel’s Lansky oozes charm, disarming Stone and building warmth, although the writer is occasionally jarred back to remembering how intelligent and dangerous his subject really is.

Meanwhile, Stone is in a tight spot with the FBI pressuring him to cooperate despite his secrecy agreement with Lansky. While Stone  struggles with his choices, Lansky seems always a step ahead of everyone.

The film gives surprising details about Lansky. On his own initiative, Lansky turned mob brutality on Nazi organizations when they held pre-World War II recruiting events in New York, sending teams of toughs to break up Nazi bund meetings where speakers praised Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideas in front of Nazi flags. We get a taste of that in one particularly satisfying brawl scene, in which defiant, brawny Jews beat Nazis to a bloody pulp.

A scene from Eytan Rockaway’s crime thriller biopic “Lansky.” Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The film presents a mixed history, with nothing simply black and white. By having Lansky as the narrator of this history, Rockaway gets around questions of what is true and what is just the way Lansky sees it, or maybe wants to tell it, leaving viewers to make up their own minds.

“Lansky” is part crime thriller, part biopic, part history lesson and pure delight, as we have fun watching Keitel and Worthington bring their characters to life.

“Lansky” will be showing at the Marcus Wehrenberg St. Charles Cinema starting June 25 and will be available for streaming on-demand on major platforms.