The American Gangster traces the history of the Mafia from its unorganized, clan-based structure in Italy to its more organized origins in New York City in the early 20th century. Though the intro gives the presentation a "cheap" feel, it is filled with loads of interesting information, such as how the mob began as a group of street thugs from multiple ethnic backgrounds. Unlike the organizations in Italy, the New York groups embraced nearly anyone who was trustworthy and willing to join. This led to tight knit groups that were incredibly organized, which helped them to come to power during Prohibition and continue that power after it was repealed.
Compared to other documentaries that take on the subject, The American Gangster takes a fact-based approach. There's no commentary from experts or talking heads, which removes "opinion" from the equation. It is almost amazing to see the business-like manner in which the Mafia's affairs were handled and how that translated to its success. What really struck me was how much of an impact the Mafia had on American history and that even the Government wasn't above seeking help if they needed it. However, these figures aren't held up as people worthy of praise and the consequences of their actions are shown in sometimes graphic detail.
In addition to covering the history of the group as a whole, several notable figures and events are also examined. In addition to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the Atlantic City and Havana conferences are also mentioned. Nearly every notable mafia figure also gets their time to shine, including Al Capone and "Bugsy" Siegel.
The only thing The American Gangster has going against it is the length. Considering the Mafia's long, interesting history, it would be great to see it get more than 48 minutes. The amount of information that is squeezed into the documentary is great, though it has to skip over several key events that are just as interesting. However, the short length does make it ideal for screening in a High School American History class.
Although the short length doesn't allow for much detail, the amount of information and archival footage that make up The American Gangster make it an interesting and educational experience.