Live by Night

Filmmakers who try to replicate The Godfather do so at their own risk. Every few years, during Oscar season, one of the big studios will come along with a well- upholstered period gangster epic—Road to Perdition (2002), American Gangster (2007), Legend (2015)—but none of them ever resonates socially the way the first two Godfather movies did during the institutional corruption of the Watergate era. Live by Night, which writer-director Ben Affleck has adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, takes a stab in this direction by portraying the hero, an Irish rumrunner who flees Boston and sets up a new operation in Tampa, as a sort of pre- multicultural man, finding common cause with the local oppressed blacks and immigrant Cubans. But it’s more concerned with flattering our modern sensibility than truly plunging us into the mores of the 1920s.

Surrounding these cultural notations is the usual welter of shifting loyalties and bloody revenge. Joe Coughlin (Affleck), son of a Boston police captain, runs afoul of Irish mob boss Albert White but ultimately wins protection from Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore, who sends Coughlin to sunny Florida to manage his Cuban-connected bootlegging operations. In Tampa, Coughlin works hand in glove with a pious police chief skilled in looking the other way (Chris Cooper), whose brother-in-law is active in the local Ku Klux Klan chapter and whose virginal young daughter (Elle Fanning) makes a circuitous personal journey from aspiring movie starlet to heroin-addicted whore to rousing temperance speaker. Coughlin was raised Catholic but doesn’t give a damn about their old-time religion. He likes hanging out at the black juke joints that serve his demon rum, and he falls madly in love with Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana), a smoldering Cuban expatriate.

None of this defies imagination, but Live by Night, despite all the historical markers Affleck lays down, ultimately seems less concerned with America during Prohibition than with the modern red-blue divide. Matthew Maher, a talented actor whose cleft lip has relegated him to a series of weirdo character roles, plays the Klansman, his vile bigotry delivered in a watery lisp so we’ll know how evil he is. He reviles blacks and Hispanics, but also Jews and Catholics, which gives some white liberals a chance to savor their lost heritage of victimhood and unites immigrants of every race against the joyless white evangelists of the Deep South. One of the great pleasures of fiction is the chance to inhabit another person’s world, but in our age of historical amnesia, we’re more inclined to make fictional characters inhabit our own.  v