Once Upon a Time in America

Year of release: 1984              Directed by Sergio Leone.                  Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.

“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.

The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.

Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.

It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.

However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.

As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.

Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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