Some movies ensnare the viewers from the opening shot. Watching it, you're not entirely sure of what path the filmmakers are taking you on, but you remain invested and curious, entertained throughout but wondering how it will all come together. You question certain elements of the film along the way, thinking of them as minor flaws or distractions, but when you reach the end and the truth is revealed, everything makes sense. Every decision you questioned is now fully understood and appreciated, and everything you thought was good is actually great. You stand up from your seat and glance at a clock, stunned to discover four hours have passed. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
The American Dream, the belief that it does not matter who you are, where you come from, or who your family is, you have the promise of opportunity to achieve great deeds in the United States. It is the story that has helped define America, the social mobility that has separated the U.S. from monarchies, aristocracies, or any other system of entrenched power and wealth. Of course, the American dream has been the source of great debate in recent years. Does everyone really have the same opportunity to succeed, are there barriers in place we don't acknowledge, and what does a person sacrifice in their pursuit of that level of success? Just as he examined the myths of the American west in Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone looks at the hard truths and realities buried beneath the American dream and lets us see its ugly side. This is not a Horatio Alger story; this is a tale of crime, betrayal, and regret.
Thirty years ago, bootlegger David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) tipped off the cops in the waning days of Prohibition, and in the process, his three best friends were killed: Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden), and Cockeye (William Forsyth). Noodles barely escaped from vengeful gangsters, but now it appears he's been compromised. Returning to his former Brooklyn neighborhood, he begins re-examining his life: how he and Max met as boys, rose to prominence in the criminal world, became notorious gang leaders, allied with a labor organizer (Treat Williams), and grew distant as their friendship became frayed. Noodles also remembers Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), the girl who could have been the love of his life had he not been drawn to crime.
Once Upon a Time in America unfolds like a dream. The narrative moves in and out different time periods, transitioning from memory to memory (or hallucinations), and moving along at a deliberate pace. The film covers decades of American history: the impoverished mid-teens, the roaring twenties and the counter-cultural sixties. The sense of time through period details in setting and costumes is astounding. It's a testament to Leone and his writers (adapting a novel by Harry Grey) that the audience never becomes lost. Many of the big moments in the story work as their own stand-alone, little episodes, and while we're not sure how the earlier scenes will eventually tie together, we are intrigued. The film is an epic yet intimate portrait of two lifelong friends, Max and Noodles, and we witness all the events that shaped them.
The film could be interpreted as a fulfillment of the American dream. A group of friends, growing up poor with nothing but their wits and ambition, find fortune and success in the business of their choice. They were as close as brothers, swearing to share everything. The caveat is they did so by breaking the law, killing people, and being absolutely ruthless when called upon. Police are almost incidental to the story, and government services are not non-existent. Competition between criminals drives the economy here, and only the smartest, most skilled, and most brutal will rise to the top. But it can't last; they come crashing down. They end up with nothing, not even their names (evidenced by Noodles going into hiding under a pseudonym), or they end up dead.
Noodles, as seen in his current scenes (the 60s), is old, tired, and alone. Everything he worked for went for nothing. He has neither the fruits of his life of crime nor a peaceful, happy legitimate existence with Deborah. She married someone else, someone else, we learn, who was an old friend of Noodles and manipulated him to call the cops so long ago. That old friend is now a rich politician, a man with real power, influence, and money. In a sense, he stole Noodles' life and is living out his dream. The great irony of the film is we thought we were following Noodles and his decision to betray his friends, but in reality, he was the one who was betrayed.
Leone is the energy driving the movie. His style and skill show a master at the top of his game; it's a shame this was his last hurrah. De Niro gives one of his best performances as the reserved, conflicted Noodles; it's not a showy performance, but it is the story's anchor. Woods, meanwhile, is the volatile one, unpredictable and yet, in his own way, charismatic and driven. The supporting is great with the likes of Joe Pesci, Burt Young, William Forsythe, and others. Even the child actors portraying the younger Noodles and Max do well.
Once Upon a Time in America is a powerful, absorbing portrait of crime, power, and friendship. Do not be scared off by its four-hour running time. Every moment is essential to illustrating its narrative, and when it's all over, you're left re-examining every point along the way.