Thoughts on "Boardwalk Empire"

[Editor’s note: I’m a week behind, but enjoy!]

Two of my favorite genres are the gangster drama and the political thriller. Central to each is the demonstration of the drastic measures taken on the quest for power. When combined, these twin quests are often examined in a clearer light. From the New York Machine in Gangs of New York to the ethnic-urban gangster politics of “Brotherhood,” I can’t get enough of this intoxicating crossbreed.

HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” is a (non-mini) series about Prohibition Era gangsters and politicians, and the murky line between them. Consider the pedigree: Created by the finest “Sopranos” scribe short of David Chase (Terence Winter), with a pilot directed by the most celebrated filmmaker of his generation, Martin Scorsese, working right in his wheelhouse. For me (and plenty of others), it’s a no-brainer.

I relished each of the 72 minutes of the pilot episode – this much Scorsese doesn’t come for free. The director’s trademarks abound: sharp angles, well-placed quick cuts, track zooms, dialogue over freeze frames. A gun fight that jumps and jerks with violent urgency, and a sense of humor out of an Abbot and Costello routine. Scorsese is a master of film whose well-practiced parlor tricks still get me, after all these years.

Like in “Brotherhood,” the main characters are ostensibly on different sides of the law. For Steve Buscemi’s Enoch “Nucky” Thompson and Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, however, things are not that clear cut. Thompson is the treasurer and behind-the-scenes power broker of Atlantic City; Darmody is a fresh-faced, slightly-hobbled veteran of the Great War who wants in on the action. First off: How good is Steve Buscemi? This role seems built for an actor with such a nuanced range. And Michael Pitt, playing with the emptiness behind his blue eyes, is no slouch with a character that could go either way (a talent also exploited in Michael Haneke’s US version of Funny Games).

The pilot only hints at the varied landscape and rich, interesting characters of the Boadwalk Empire. As Nucky’s flame Lucy, Paz de la Huerta is an original Jersey Shore denizen: foul-mouthed and sex-crazed. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein is the opposite of his nebbish titular character in A Serious Man: calm, collected, self-assured, and oozing power. Rothstein may prove to be as tough and adversary as Michael Shannon’s stone-jawed G-man Nelson Van Alden. Perfectly cast character actors from Scorsese films past and similar material round out a solid cast. Shout-out to Michael K. Williams (“Omar’s comin!”), shown briefly as Chalky White, the town’s major black player.

Scorsese is, as always, a master of suspense. You may know the whack is coming, but the “when” and the “how” are always in doubt. It turns out that bootlegging in the 20s is to drugs in 50s as the central internecine conflict between gangsters. As in The Godfather, those who doubt the next step are often left behind.

Like “Brotherhood,” “Boardwalk Empire” exists at the triple point of organized crime, politics and family, but with Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese (and soon, Allen Coulter) at the helm. The sets, costumes and props are immersive in the extreme; you worry that the high budget will eventually doom this show, no matter how rave the reviews and strong the pedigree. Still, this is a perfect pilot, whetting the appetite with a hint of things to come and seeds of story lines sowed.

A key scene between Buscemi and Pitt hints at the central question of this and the director’s earlier works (chiefly Goodfellas and Gangs of New York):

Darmody: “All I want is an opportunity.”
Thompson: “This is America, ain’t it? Who the fuck’s stopping ya?”

Irish, Italian, or Jew – Americans are all immigrants, grasping at the American dream. And whether with the briefcase or with the shotgun (to paraphrase Omar), these guys are going to get it.

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