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Boardwalk Empire Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 9, 2012 at 11:32 PM

    “We’ve got a product a fella’s gotta have; more importantly we’ve got a product a fella can’t have.”

    Prohibition in the United States was introduced on January 17th 1920 via the Eighteenth Amendment. For nearly half a Century the anti-alcohol movement had been growing, driven by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, who were concerned with the level of alcohol consumption – with an average of approximately 2 bottles of spirits being consumed per person per week – and increasing levels of domestic violence, but America’s 1917 declaration of War against Germany was the final spark: prohibiting the production of alcohol would allow more resources to be freed up for the War effort. Still, the movement was not successful until just after the end of the War.

    The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation into, or the exportation from, the United States...” and the Volstead Act was passed by Congress to implement the law, with over 1500 Federal Prohibition Agents given the task of enforcing it. The trouble was that nobody took it very seriously; from its very inception the law lacked legitimacy in the eyes of much of the public, many of whom had previously been drinkers and yet also law-abiding citizens – as such it was viewed as an arbitrary, unnecessary rule that did not warrant obeying. Furthermore, the law itself did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, and so all that Prohibition accomplished was to drive the manufacturers and importers underground, and help fuel organised crime for over a decade.

    Prohibition was also largely unenforced by cities themselves, with the limited Federal Agents attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to enforce the law across the entire country. Atlantic City was one such place: a resort city which prospered greatly from the illegalisation of alcohol, as the new law largely went unenforced in the city; it was soon nicknamed ‘the world’s playground’.

    Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson ran Atlantic City during this period, often dubbed the Roaring Twenties. On the face of it he was a stalwart, law-abiding New Jersey county treasurer, but he was also a political boss and a crime racketeer; most of his income came from the percentage he took on every gallon of illegal liquor sold, every gambling den and every whorehouse in the county. He famously stated:

    “We have whisky, wine, women, song and slot machines. I won't deny it and I won't apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn't want them they wouldn't be profitable and they would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.”

    Boardwalk Empire fictionally explores the career of Nucky Thompson from the very first day of prohibition onwards, looking at his rule over Atlantic City, his struggles with the other big crime bosses, and his confrontations with the Federal authorities during the period.

    He is introduced as being a well-respected and surprisingly well-loved individual, called upon to give keynote speeches for the Women’s Temperance League. Yet on the eve of prohibition, we find him surrounded by equally corrupt and powerful players within the county, who all celebrate the Volstead Act – its effect being to merely increase the profit that they can make on sales of alcohol.

    Nucky’s younger brother, Eli, is the figurehead town sheriff, but everybody knows that Nucky controls the city – in a large part thanks to his respectful collaboration with the black population in the County, as headed up by partner crime boss Albert “Chalky” White – a fact which draws the attention of crime bosses from around the country, who seek a meeting with the man to organise the purchase of some of his imported liquor.

    “If you wanna’ be a gangster in my town then you’ll pay me for the privilege.”

    Amidst these men are Chicago’s bosses Big John Colosimo and Johnny Torrio, and New York’s Arnold Rothstein and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, who are looking towards making Nucky their sole liquor supplier. Rothstein is a highly intelligent Jewish multi-millionaire crime Kingpin (nicknamed ‘the Brain’) and, together with his somewhat short-tempered Sicilian partner Lucky Luciano, now regarded as the (god)father of organised crime in America, they control New York City. And Torrio’s right hand man needs no introduction: he’s an ambitious young pit-bull called Al Capone, who believes that his boss should expand his control over Chicago. One of Nucky’s own men, a young war hero called Jimmy Darmody, believes the same thing about Nucky – that he should expand his empire and take a firmer, more aggressive grip over Atlantic City, to which end he decides to take matters into his own hands to perpetuate this change.

    It’s not long before the authorities start to put the pieces together as well – linking the five bosses through a meeting in Atlantic City – and dogged Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden soon starts to set his sights on Nucky’s administration. A zealous Protestant, he is prepared to do whatever it takes to get his man and enforce his ‘beliefs’. Nucky’s power and presence also draw the attention of a heavily pregnant woman named Margaret Schroeder, who goes to him for help with her drunken, abusive husband.

    Over the course of the first season we get to know this diverse set of characters intimately – we learn who Nucky’s true friends are, and where his greatest threats lie; we see the often dangerous results of ambitious actions, and learn what happens to those who pay the price of underestimating it. His trusted assistant ward manager, Jimmy, may have instigated a necessary evolution in the way in which his boss manages Atlantic City, but it is not without its consequences and indeed Nucky’s empire may well never be the same.

    “You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore.”

    Boardwalk Empire is a fantastic new crime series from the masters of quality drama, HBO. It mixes the period authenticity of Mad Men and Deadwood, with the pacing, story development and organised crime theme of The Sopranos. It’s no wonder about the last connection, particularly since it’s created, written and produced by Sopranos writer Terence Winter; an adaptation of the first chapter of Nelson Johnson’s book about Nucky Johnson, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.

    That said, the person who feels like he had the biggest hand in making Boardwalk Empire what it is, is acclaimed Director Martin Scorese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Shutter Island), who returns to television after almost three decades to be Executive Producer and occasional Director for the series. Not only did he do a great deal of the research and pre-production work required to get the series ready, but he also directed the pilot episode, arguably setting the style and tone for every one since. Indeed, his episode has gone down in TV history as being the most expensive pilot ever made, costing some $18 Million, more than the cost of some independent movies. It’s worth every dollar though, and it sets up the entire series with the locations, costumes and props necessary to make it arguably the most authentic period production ever commissioned for TV.

    Creator Winter originally expressed concerns over whether or not they could bring the book to life accurately, but as soon as Scorsese got involved, those worries disappeared – a 300ft boardwalk was created specifically for the show, period buildings and vehicles were created or sourced for the production, and liberal visual effects were used to fill in the gaps. Indeed the majority of wide shots across the show utilise startlingly good background effects, seamlessly blending in with the live action and real-set elements.

    In terms of style, as stated, Scorsese’s pilot largely dictates the way in which the rest of the season goes, the subsequent regular directors trying their best to imitate his almost inimitable artistry. The recurring elements include, of course, the excellent Rolling-Stones-esque title track and the use of genuine music (and genuine film clips) from the period throughout every single episode, and these are Scorsese through-and-through, but he also sets the tone in terms of direction.

    “Oh, tough guy, you gonna’ shoot me for mouthing off?”
    “Well I wasn't going to, but you kinda’ talked me into it.”

    Yet the pilot still stands out. Using all the tricks in his arsenal we find ourselves hooked right from the opening scene: an ambush – a cold open which soon freezes, cuts to a ‘three nights earlier’ placard and then flashes back to the events that led up to the violent confrontation (c.f. Casino). The freeze-frame cutting between scenes carries on throughout the episode, and we get his trademark (c.f. The Aviator) dialogue-interspersed-with fighting; cross-scene-blending (The Departed); and rolling camera movements (Goodfellas), with several violent montages (and some bloody shotgun wounds showcasing half-blown-away-skulls) blending the key action sequences as percussive Scorsese beats and authentic period recordings playing in the background. Indeed, the pilot’s end-of-The-Godfather-like elements basically set the stage for the season one narrative.

    Whilst the real Nucky Johnson was quite a well-built, stocky individual in his late thirties at the start of Prohibition, the producers were wary of the fact that casting him accurately might draw too many parallels with James Galdofini in The Sopranos, instead approaching acclaimed actor Steve Buscemi (The Big Lebowski, The Island) to bring us his own take on Nucky. And indeed, Buscemi’s immaculately-dressed – some would say, dapper – witty, eloquent and highly intelligent gangster is just about as far from Tony Soprano as you could imagine, and also, even despite the age difference between Buscemi and the character, his imagining is still remarkably authentic in terms of how Nucky Johnson both dressed and acted. Buscemi’s boss is politically-wise, highly strategic, but not without his own flaws (nobody can see all the angles) and certainly not without an angry streak. He may be one of the most well-mannered, well-loved and well-respected of his species – one might say quite advanced in terms of his treatment of blacks and women during the period – but he’s still constantly swimming with sharks, and he is eminently human, after all. It’s a career-defining performance from Buscemi, and he’s one of the biggest reasons to get your teeth into this drama and refuse to let go.

    “First rule of politics, kiddo: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

    Mostly also based on real-life individuals, the supporting characters are brought to life by an eclectic cast, some of who you may have also heard of, and all of whom grow into their respective roles over the course of the series (though some take longer than others). Part of this slow-warming, getting-to-know-them factor can be blamed on the actors, but it’s also worth remembering that the producers have attempted to paint a very broad picture of this period in the history of Atlantic City, both politically and in terms of criminal activity, and, in doing so, have tried to introduce us to well over a dozen key characters – and detail each and every one of their backstories. This is no mean feat, and it leaves every single actor compelled to keep up their end, otherwise the integrity of the show would fall apart.

    Of course the new characters, who are mostly or entirely fictional, created specifically for the show, are the ones that require the longest for the actors to settle in to the roles. One of the most important is Nucky’s increasingly prominent enforcer Jimmy Darmody, and he’s played by Michael Pitt (Funny Games, The Village), who’s probably best remembered for his recurring character in Dawson’s Creek. Pitt really fumbles with the part at first, not quite setting the tone – and playing him differently in the pilot episode to much of the rest of the season but, by the end of it all, despite it not having started out that way, you do end up getting to know the character, even if you may not respect him and are probably a few steps short of actually liking him. The side plotting involving his seemingly loyal wife (and young son) takes far too long to play out, and, even then, never comes across as fully satisfactory – although at least it never comes close to being predictable. There’s no doubt that Pitt’s a weak link, but, if you persist (which is made relatively easy by Buscemi’s charismatic lead part) then eventually he comes through (funnily enough, Gretchen ‘3:10 to Yuma’ Mol is almost as hard to get used to in her role as Jimmy’s unconvincingly young mother, but you do eventually get used to her too).

    Another important fictional character is that of Margaret Schroeder, here realised by Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men, Gosford Park), who feels a long way from her ‘free spirit’ debut in Trainspotting. And similarly Macdonald initially struggles with the role, not quite finding her footing until almost the mid-way mark in the season – not just in terms of her frankly awful Irish accent (which does get better, or, rather, dissipates), but also in terms of how she plays the slow-burning potential love interest for Buscemi’s Nucky. Thankfully it largely suits the part: as an actress, she appears to be coming out of her shell and embracing the role in much the same way that her character is supposed to come out of her shy, reserved shell and start living. (It also helps that her character is infinitely more tolerable than Nucky’s first mistress, Lucy, who is brought to life by the classically beautiful Paz de la Huerta with all the bubble-head vacant-ness of the prostitute Steve Martin kidnaps in The Man with Two Brains)

    “I’ve been lectured to a great deal today by men who speak boldly and do nothing.”

    In fact, out of the fictional characters – even including The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams in a great little role as Chalky White – it’s Michael Shannon’s portrayal of obsessive Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden who stands out – Shannon (Revolutionary Road, 13) bringing to almost each episode a new facet to his character, exhibiting increasing levels of destructiveness (sometimes even towards himself) across the series, particularly as he becomes interested not only in the activities of Nucky Johnson, but also Nucky’s new lady-friend, Mrs. Schroeder.

    Then there are the slightly smaller roles bringing the real-life historical figures to life, all of whom simply nail their respective parts right from the outset: Michael Stuhlbarg (Hugo) is perfectly composed as the well-spoken, highly intelligent New York mob boss Arnold Rothstein, and Vincent Piazza (The Sopranos) is almost as good – or at least suitably unpleasant – as his short-tempered partner Lucky Luciano.

    The real one to watch, however, has got to be Brit actor Stephen Graham’s (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) depiction of a young Al Capone, showing you, across the course of the series, not only the widely-known violent side to the notorious Chicago gangster, but also added character dimension with his family life and his career progression. He may still, essentially, be playing the same larger-than-life psychotic gangster that is feared more than befriended, but he’s brought to life in a more interesting way as a side character in Boardwalk Empire, than I’ve ever seen in any production before (even including Robert De Niro’s magnificently authentic portrayal of him for The Untouchables), and given that they introduce him at such an early age, they have plenty of time to play with the character before his size dictates a series all to himself.

    “Ambition can sometimes be misread as impatience.”

    Indeed Boardwalk Empire is quite deliberately paced; it is very complex in its multiple character-arcs, which all feed a very long and wrought-out plot that does not truly come together until the last few episodes – it travels to Chicago and New York, characters coming and going almost as if without purpose – but it’s never less than compelling, adult material, often on the cusp of being movie-like in terms of scale, script and scope. The dialogue is both sharply witty and relentlessly quotable, more so than most TV shows – even its HBO counterparts – and both the violence and sex are at a level seldom conscionable for a successful TV series, following suit after The Sopranos and Deadwood, but, particularly in its Scorsese-directed opening salvo, perhaps even besting their previous standards of adult material.

    It may not quite be a perfect show, at least not yet, but it comes damn close, and it has gotten off to a great start: it has a standout pilot episode, a solid and progressively evolving first season, and enough twists and turns to not only keep you hooked and desperate to watch the next episode, but also waiting desperately for the next seasons (of which they have commissioned at least 2). Steve Buscemi, though you may not immediately think of him that way, actually makes for a great lead to carry the show – the focus is on the life of Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, after all – and the supporting cast and characters, as well as the totally authentic setting, really draw you into this whole new world.

    Don’t miss out on the chance to return to the Roaring Twenties, in all their glory, and follow the bloody exploits of the powerful in the booming bootlegging capital, Atlantic City.

    Highly recommended.

    “You wanna’ know how I do business? Show your face again in Atlantic City!”