“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.”
– Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: The People Machines (1979)
*I saw Live by Night on Saturday – 14 January 2017.
Is it just me or does it seem that hindsight bias is the one mental condition affecting everyone on television these days? Deep down I know it must have always been there, but I seem to have noticed more people trying to say “I told you so” these days than before – even people who blatantly never us anything. It’s not enough that every day I read some new op-ed saying “the tech bubble is this close to collapsing worse than in 2000,” but everyone claiming to be the reincarnation of Nostradamus says they foresaw every recent calamity, from the 2008 financial crisis to the season premiere of The Walking Dead. Hell, Aaron Sorkin practically based an entire tv show around hindsight bias with The Newsroom.
And it’s the sort of left-leaning bias exhibited by folks like Sorkin that brings me to today’s film. Although I fancy myself as being politically progressive/left-to-centre, I’m not one for pandering from either side of the aisle. I consider myself a logical and scientific person, so I’m more attracted to facts than opinions. With so much “fake news” consumed by people in bubbles, I’ve become even more discriminating in the legitimate sources I patronize each day. I don’t want you to talk down to me or just say you agree, I want you to tell me the truth.
Live by Night is what happens when one tries to insert the square peg of modern-day liberal bias (most of which I agree with) into the round hole of a Depression-era setting.
When Boston native Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) returns from World War I, the only line of work he’s able to keep is to become a heavy for leader of the Irish mob. After making the tragic mistake of sleeping with – and falling for – the boss’s girl, he retreats to Miami to build his own empire. As he fights against ignorance of local authorities and the racism of the time, it only serves to increase Joe’s vigilance in shaping the world as he sees fit.
Ever heard the term “limousine liberal”? It’s a derogatory term used to describe rich lefties who couldn’t possibly have the working class’s best interests at heart. Otherwise, why would they constantly bask in such opulence? (What the fuck is the conservative equivalent? Seriously, I’m asking. The right-wing working class voted for a multiply-bankrupted “billionaire” who wants to destroy the very regulations that keep those workers safe.) When lefties actually live up to those stereotypes and it seeps into their art – Sorkin’s growing body of work, the films of Rod Lurie, to name but a few – it’s cringe-inducing.
Live by Night is such a misfire. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say how much of what’s wrong is the fault of novelist Dennis Lahane. But given that Ben Affleck wrote the screen adaptation, stars in the lead role, narrates the film, and directed himself – it’s safe to say he’s behind a lot of what’s wrong.
If I had to narrow it down to two major problems, the first would be that this film feels like the highlight reel of television mini-series: characters are introduced in one scene never to return again; major developments are brushed away with a dissolve and Affleck’s own clunky narration; and the film seems to be in a constant race to both fit in and wrap up as many storylines as possible within two hours. This results in an obvious lack of character development, something the audience needs to have if they’re to have any empathy for the people on-screen.
The other problem is the film’s aforementioned modern take on politics and social mores. When Affleck’s Joe Coughlin tries to set up a casino, only to be confronted by local religious leaders, the exchanges are what one would expect to read in the transcript of the latest episode of Real Time with Bill Maher (and there’s a reason I stopped watching that damn show). A similar speech by Coughlin about “the working man” is a clumsy retread of a similar speech from Citizen Kane. But all of that pales in comparison to the film’s take on race. Coughlin’s wife/partner in Miami is the Afro-Cuban Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). Not only does Coughlin – again, a native Boston, an area with a long history of racism – not care about his lover’s race, not only does he defend her and her family from the Ku Klux Klan, but he delivers yet another pretentious speech about how someday all the downtrodden races in the United States will come for what’s rightfully theirs.
As a Black man myself, I spent every moment of this wishing he’d shut up. It didn’t help matters that each of these speeches was delivered in a near-first-person direct-to-camera address.
Believe it or not, there are some good things to be found in the film. Affleck will likely never win an Oscar for acting – unless he’s undeservedly handed one the way DiCaprio was – but he knows how to get good performances from his casts. Said cast features Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Titus Welliver, and Anthony Michael Hall. Some only show up for a single scene, but they deliver their lines well.
Affleck’s other strength as a director is that he knows how to stage an action scene. Having already written and directed The Town, it makes sense that he’d fancy the old-school bullet-riddled action of crime films over the more popular explosion-heavy action blockbusters. The shoot-outs have a great sense of tension and kinetic energy that gets you interested in the outcome of these paper-thin characters. Perhaps one day Affleck will turn over the acting and writing duties to someone else as he guides the story from behind the camera.
Live by Night thinks it’s a great movie and wants you to think so as well. It says all of these things that are oh-so important and thinks you should show it due respect for having the courage to do so. But there’s an old saying about someone who says they’re great as opposed to someone who actually is. If Live by Night were a person, it would be the former.