Historical fealty has never been Hollywood’s strong suit (as this year’s Oscars crop reminded), and even classic exposés of La La Land such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential played fast and loose with the facts. But at least these period pieces covered their tracks with allegorical subtext, composited characters, and pseudonyms. Ruben Fleischer’s crime drama Gangster Squad (2013), which shoots holes as wide as the Arroyo Parkway in its realistic backdrop, not only purports to play it straight but flaunts authenticity like nobody’s business.
The bait and switch begins with the opening establishing shot of Los Angeles in 1949, highlighting a seemingly spanking new “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign—indeed, the sign’s original spelling since 1923, when it served as a billboard for a residential development. By 1949, however, literally fallen into disrepair with letters crumbling and keeled over, the sign was renovated and resurrected in its present iconic form. The abridgment expanded the sign’s purview to reflect, and rebrand, the larger Hollywood district, film industry, and frame of mind—all of which were themselves in desperate need of refurbishment due to a disastrous postwar decline in movie attendance and the rise of Las Vegas as a rival nightlife hub to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
A little knowledge may not be a dangerous thing in the sign’s case, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The film’s plot is set in motion by police chief William Parker’s launching of a clandestine guerilla war against mob boss Mickey Cohen in 1949, leading to Cohen’s arrest and (seeming) career-ending incarceration on a murder charge after a fraught and lengthy quasi-vigilante campaign. In reality, Parker only became chief in mid-1950 and Cohen came to grief a few months later, and not for a spectacular gangland murder but for mundane tax evasion. Moreover, after serving a four-year sentence, he resumed his organized criminality until a second conviction, again on tax evasion, in 1961, from which he was released in 1972 (he died in 1976). As for Cohen’s gangster moll providing the eye-witness testimony that put Cohen away, as the film asserts, the actual moll, Liz Renay, herself went to prison for three years for refusing to inform on her mob-king beau.
Cohen himself, while accurately (if incongruously) identified as a Jewish boxer, was not a wealthy boozer and druggie enamored of the high life, as Sean Penn’s scenery-gobbling performance would have us believe. In actuality, Cohen was a modest-living teetotaler and germaphobe who could give Howard Hughes a run for his paranoia.
Most disturbing ideologically is the whitewashing of Chief Parker. Nick Nolte portrays the legendary chief as appropriately gruff and bombastic, but the lone serious critique of his character, as ruthlessly sadistic, comes from the Marquis de Cohen. More authoritative is our hero, Sgt. John O’Mara’s (Josh Brolin), voiceover tribute to Parker for helping keep the city mob-free. Left undisclosed is the bigoted chief’s substantial role in not helping keep the city free from racial conflict but instead raising (and razing) it to Watts Riots levels. Attempts to maintain the Parker Center name for the new LAPD headquarters in 2009 ran aground owing to this troubled legacy, which Gangster Squad strives to wipe clean.
Even the film’s characterization of Burbank as L.A.’s then-best answer to the Deep South only gets it half right. Although the once-redneck burg’s police chief comes across as a proto-Bull Connor, he might have reminded the black South Central cop he has hauled into custody that Burbank was a “sundown town,” meaning that African Americans were allowed within city limits—but only from dawn to dusk, and for menial employment.
All in all, though not as outrageous as having, say, Osama Bin Laden taken out under Bush II’s rather than Obama’s watch in Zero Dark Thirty, or Honest Abe survive a would-be assassin’s bullet in Lincoln, Gangster Squad does stretch the historical record to the breaking point. Which begs the question of how the film managed to get away with murder, historically speaking.
Beyond its unabashed positioning as guilty pleasure, does Gangster Squad’s comparative impunity stem from the greater leeway granted a city’s history (especially one allied with Hollywood) to that of the nation’s at large? Or were Fleischer and company simply ascribing to the newspaperman’s cynical conclusion in John Ford’s 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (updated in Ben Affleck’s rehabilitation of the CIA in Argo): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”?
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, is due out in early 2013.