UK / USA, 1997 (MIFF 1998, Documentaries)
Director: Paul Wilmshurst
An absolutely astounding documentary about the life and (alleged) crimes of Oscar Goodman - Mob lawyer. Fans of Scorsese's Casino will recognise Goodman who played himself as Robert DeNiro's court counsel, a role Oscar also played in real life when he represented the Vegas Mafioso that DeNiro's character was based on. Thoroughly convinced of his own innocence, and living by the twisted maxim that even hardened criminals and killers deserve the best legal representation possible, Goodman is a walking contradiction.
A devout Jew, a loving husband and a doting father, Goodman rose from new kid on the block to courtroom hotshot when a casino pit boss recommended him to some influential hoods back in the 1950s. Throughout five decades he has represented a Who's Who of the US underworld, scoring a enviable record of successful defences, keeping his clients (and himself) out of federal penitentiaries.
Director Paul Wilmshurst is fascinated by "Las Vegas culture and brutal men" and has lovingly captured the high-rolling glitz, corruption and contradictions of this desert Gomorrah. His portrait of Goodman is balanced, Wilmshurst allowing the lawyer to reveal his dark soul through his own confessions.
A confrontational finale ensues when Wilmshurst arranges an isolated desert meeting between Goodman and legendary FBI undercover agent Rick Baken. Their fiery exchange is a face off between powerful men who believe they categorically represent good and evil and their spitting, rage-fuelled attacks on one another is terrifying. One of the year's finest documentaries.
Paul Wilmshurst was, according to Broadcast magazine, warned by Oscar Goodman: "Make a film that jeopardises either me or my family and I'll have you killed." It was never determined whether the threat was serious, but, as Mob Law producer Gary Johnstone says, "...it was incredibly hard to know if Oscar was for real or just kidding. But the people he associates with do kill people."