Wild Old Florida in “Live By Night”
By Skip Sheffield
Welcome to the Ben Affleck show. Ben Affleck directs, stars and adapted Dennis Lahane’s novel “Live By Night” for the screen.
Affleck is Joe Coughlin, a good Irish boy gone bad in 1920s Boston. Joe is the youngest son of esteemed Boston police Chief Thomas Coughlin, played by Brendan Gleeson.
Something snapped in Joe when he was “fighting Huns” in 1917 in World War I.
“I will never take orders again,” Joe says in voiceover. “I came out an outlaw.”
Joe may be an outlaw in the lawless Boston of 1927, but he is a dapper one. He is one of the lieutenants of Irish-American mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe plays with fire by launching an affair with Albert White’s townie girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).
You play with fire and you get burned. It comes as no surprise Albert White learns Joe has cuckolded him. White’s goons beat Joe within an inch of his life. Then after a botched bank job and a wild car chase with three cops killed, Joe is wounded, arrested, and thanks to his dad’s influence given a lenient three-year stretch in prison, which ironically saves him from White’s goons. When he is released he decides to go to the other side by signing up with rival Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Maso likes Joe, and decides to send him on a mission to Tampa, Florida to straighten out the bootlegging business.
So begins a chapter two for Joe and the viewer. It’s fun to see an imagined view of Florida, and director Affleck makes the most of it. Joe gains an ally and sidekick, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) and a beautiful new Cuban girlfriend, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). Graciela and her brother Estenban Suarez (singing star Miguel) smuggle Cuban rum into Florida. Soon Joe becomes the rum king of Ybor City with the implicit permission of Police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper). He stands up to despicable KKK leader RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher). Things come unraveled when the chief’s lovely daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) goes off to Hollywood to become a star and becomes a junkie and prostitute instead. As so often happens in these cases, when Loretta goes through rehabilitation she emerges a crusader against sin, booze and godlessness.
Prohibition to the dismay of its promoters caused the exact opposite of its desired effect. It made bootlegging and criminal activity flourish. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Florida, which was wide open to all manner of illicit activity. All things come to an end. The end of Prohibition came when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. There is a spectacular gun battle near the end of “Live By Night,” and then the story tapers down to a melancholy end. While this is by no means a masterwork, it is good to look at, and it is of particular interest to students of Florida history. File it under noble effort.