Available on HBO, Sunday at 9pm/EST
Darmody: All I want is an opportunity.
Nucky Thompson: This is America, ain’t it? Who’s
Would you be surprised if I told you Martin Scorsese had directed the pilot to a show about old-fashioned mobsters and vibrant roaring-twenties sets? I bet you wouldn’t. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire though not completely geared under the Scorsese engine (it is produced by Terence Winter) resembles much of the director’s earlier work and a little more. It has that stunningly meticulous realism (Mean Streets) and tells a story of a life that is indulgent at first, but, we can assume, will degenerate into something rather nefarious (Goodfellas).
Boardwalk Empire (in this case, the pilot episode) is a great start because it is lively, gripping, and true. It seems to walk that dangling thread between Scorsese ideology and the vigorous and profane energy HBO favors. The show, as of yet, has not proven if it is a morality tale or show-stopping entertainment. But Scorsese, who is also an executive producer, crafts the sets that seem to personify their characters: gleaming, majestic, but on the inside, corrupt, tarnished, and ostentatious.
There’s much to cover in the first episode to Boardwalk Empire. The narrative is messy, ambitious, and compulsive. Scorsese’s characters always represent inner realities that are completely different to their actual external
ones. It’s 1920 and the milieu is Atlantic City. Prohibition has become the biggest thing since the Tin Lizzie. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is first seen as a liberal and charismatic political figure. He exalts the essence of prohibition and women’s rights to an audience of inspired females. They can barely withstand Thompson’s presence. To them, he’s their diplomatic guardian angel.
Of course, Scorsese (who admired the original draft written by Terence Winter) creates an immediate character transition.
Nucky isn’t who he appears to be – instead he is a heavy-smoking, debauch, and reprobated man. He is a main supporter of Prohibition because, in the process, the illegal production and importation of alcohol is highly profitable. As Nucky says while he shuffles dollar bills in his hands, “They can drown in liquor for all I care. As long as they pay.”
So why is the location Boardwalk Empire and not New York or Chicago or Little Italy (territory much more familiar to Scorsese)? Because, at the rise of the roaring twenties, Boardwalk Empire was its own speakeasy burg, so when people wanted booze they went here because it was by the water (making it easy for shipments) and there was no hassle. Heck, the government was providing the bottles.
Michael Pitt plays James Darmody, a young recruit of Nucky, who is keen on making a name for himself. Pitt’s got the DiCaprio mannerisms down; he is the aggressively ambitious protagonist (I think of this story so far) who is really the panoramic character exposed to Scorsese’s masterful paradox of The American Dream – being somebody, yes, but through the most unconstitutional ways. James even teams up with a young Al Capone (played nicely by Stephen Graham), who is not in his prime yet but clearly has fire in his blood.
The sets also extravagant: the ones of the Boardwalk strip are monumental and ever-so resplendent, clearly reflecting the town’s relentless financial and industrial power. If anything, Boardwalk Empire is Gangs of New York redux (due to its sumptuous, turn-of-the-century look), but unlike that film, this is not about the quest for revenge. Boardwalk Empire is a quest for quite the opposite: it’s about the human necessity of vanity and how people are more concerned with doing (what they perceive to be) good to ultimately do bad.
Michael Shannon, known for his terrific scenery-chewing skills in Revolutionary Road and The Runaways, plays the puritanical Agent Nelson Van Alden, who is persuading the credulous Darmody to go undercover and bust Nucky (that scene is strongly reminiscent of the DiCaprio-Sheen-Wahlberg confrontation in The Departed – Wahlberg is also an executive producer here). By the end of the episode, we cannot help but question Darmody’s motivations. Is he a gangster? Is he a cop? Is he innocent?
And that is Scorsese’s purpose. I hope that is Winter’s too. To make the characters of Boardwalk Empire victims of, not just their environments, but their inner struggles. These are not necessarily malicious people (Scorsese made that clear after Casino), these are people following orders – theirs and others. By the end of the Pilot, Darmody informs Nucky: “you cannot half-a-gangster.” Nucky finally loses his esteem and moral integrity, whatever was left of it.
Boardwalk Empire is high on the realism and moderate on the entertainment. It will be stimulating to see where Winter takes us and if Marty will be behind that camera again. Because when he is, this result proves he can make Boardwalk Empire work.