Gangster Squad and America’s Love of Violence
Shedding light on the guns, gangsters, and blood that we apparently adore
Director Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) third movie Gangster Squad is a cops-n-mobster period piece set in Los Angeles in 1949. The movie’s cast is jam-packed, starring Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Josh Brolin along with Anthony Mackie and Giovanni Ribisi. The script was adapted by Will Beall from Paul Lieberman’s book Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob and the Battle for Los Angeles (2007). The meticulously designed sets evoke the period, and the visuals are just like the linen postcards from the time. The film is irredeemably violent and hilarious throughout.
1949 Los Angeles is being overrun by the mob. Bugsy has fled to Las Vegas and left Mickey Cohen (Penn), the maniacal Jewish mobster, to move out to Los Angeles and take over the town, and possibly the world. Cohen says at one point in the film:
You heard of Manifest Destiny? That’s when
you take what you can, when you can…
And I’m gonna take it all…and not just
because I can, but because this is my destiny.
Los Angeles is my destiny.
Cohen faces very little resistance during his rise as he has the cops, councilmen and judges in his pocket. His takeover is a fait accompli. Enter Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) who wants to fight for the soul of the city. He knows he needs to stop Cohen at all costs, but doesn’t see many options until he finds a savior in Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin). He asks O’Mara to stop Cohen and save the city and state from devolving into a world of vice and sin. O’Mara rounds up the titular squad to use crime, murder, and any means necessary to stop Cohen and his East Coast mafia from taking over the West Coast. They are going to war. Again.
The actual squad’s composition is an interesting slice of post-WWII America. O’Mara is the heroic lawman trying to clean up a morally bankrupt city on his own, struggling to adjust to life after the war and feeling that fighting is all he is good for anymore. (Any parallels to today’s returning vets?) Just like in The Master, Brolin’s character has a red-headed wife, Connie, working behind the scenes. She’s his motivating force and helps him by selecting each member of the squad after examining their files.
There’s the old-time Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) who looks like Wild Bill, complete with his trusty old revolver; the young eager Mexican cop Ramirez (Michael Pena); the idealistic African-American cop Harris (Mackie); and the IT/new tech guy Keeler (Ribisi) to round out the diverse force. They are the past and present of law enforcement in the rapidly changing world. O’Mara’s idealism ties them all together as they battle the mounting forces of Cohen and organized crime, but in order to uphold the law they must break the law.
You can guess how it all ends.
Gangster Squad was pushed back from it’s original Fall 2012 release in the wake of the horrific Aurora, CO theater shootings since a key scene in the film involved a shoot-out in a movie theater. Hollywood—much like America—tends to overreact when their films mirror the culture they are being shown. Is life imitating art? Or the other way around? In the case of this film, the studio clearly made the right call as this would’ve throw salt into the wounds of the survivors and the victim’s families. There are larger questions at stake here, however, then a big Hollywood film not wanting to look callous, or Warner Brothers’ wanting to protect its large financial stake in the film.
The biggest and toughest question is about the celebration of violence in American culture.
Gangster Squad, much like Dirty Harry, Death Wish and the Batman movies (to name just a few) glorifies the use of violence as a means to fight crime and uphold justice. These films treat the world as one awash in weak, ineffectual responses to crime, meaning the heroes have to “take the law into their own hands.” Justice will be served, with a huge dose of violence and mayhem. The creators and stars of these films must have myriad reasons for making them, but do they understand the impact? One cannot argue that a film such as this one does not posit the only way to beat violence is with more violence. When will the American public’s appetite for this mindless violence be satiated? When will it be enough?
One way these films could comment upon violence without glorifying it would be to show the outcome. At the packed-house screening of Gangster Squad I attended, people clapped and cheered along as the “good guys” killed all of the “bad guys”, especially the cruel and vicious bad guys. Go check out the 1997 Austrian film Funny Games or its shot-for-shot English-language remake by Michael Haneke. Watch either film and I can guarantee you will not enjoy watching violent films nearly as much as you once did. I have seen more than my fair share of violent films. I have enjoyed quite a few of them as well (Django recently to name one). But there comes a point in time when people need to think about what this unending stream of violence does to one’s psyche. Add up the hours of violent sports like MMA and the NFL and NHL with realistic POV shooter games, and our culture is breeding people desensitized to slick violence, devoid of any real-world ramifications.
The bottom line: as a culture we need to learn how to tell better stories. Period.
Philosopher Bill Hicks said it best a few years back—we have a choice in how we want to see the world…Fear, or Love.