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'Boardwalk Empire': Episode One

It's like 'Gangs of New York,' except good.

The gangster genre can be as cliched and unimaginative as any other popular genre, but even the worst examples have something bracing, even liberating, at their core: They categorically reject the ideology that Americans are force-fed since birth. This is a free country, government is of the people and by the people, democracy works, there's no class system, it's a level playing field, anybody can be anything they want, blah blah blah: The gangster story hears these bromides, spits on the sidewalk and drives to the nearest strip joint, tires screaming. Henry Hill, the gangster narrator of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, dismisses such sentiments as "good-government bullshit," adding, "To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work and worried about bills were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it." The organizing social principle of the gangster film is the tribe, and by this logic, no matter what fancy names we hang on its more sophisticated variants, we're still a tribal people. And whether you're a CEO, an office drone or a racketeer, the drive to make money and expand territory still boils down to this: Get whatever you can, any way you can, and do it to the other guy before he does it to you.

Scorsese's gangster movies are all founded on this cynical (or depending on your point-of-view, realistic) outlook. HBO's most acclaimed and controversial drama, "The Sopranos," built on that movie's foundation, taking its suburbanized gangster milieu and spinning it out into a six-season satirical epic about the difference between what what Americans profess to stand for and what they actually do. It seems fitting, maybe inevitable, that Scorsese and "The Sopranos" would one day join forces like an old don and an up-and-coming young punk making common cause. The summit occurs in the pilot of HBO's new series "Boardwalk Empire," which was directed by Scorsese, created by "Sopranos" producer Terence Winter, and co-executive produced by Winter and Tim van Patten, who directed many of the most explosively violent episodes of "The Sopranos." Based on Nelson Johnson's nonfiction book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City, it's a sprawling, overpopulated series that supposedly boasts the largest recurring cast ever assembled for a television program—even bigger than "Deadwood" and "Rome," both series that "Boardwalk's" main set, an elaborate recreation of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, sometimes evokes.

The pilot episode introduces many of the major characters, starting with a flashback to a robbery on a moonlit road. A load of whiskey offloaded from a ship changes hands. Who are the bootleggers? Who are the gunmen that take the booze away from them? And how are they connected to “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the treasurer of Atlantic City and a seemingly mild-mannered public official who's introduced speaking to a roomful of temperance-minded women who support the constitutionally mandated eradication of the demon rum? Suffice to say that the Scorsese-Sopranos brand of looking-through-you cynicism is very much in place, and that Scorsese and Winter establish their animosity toward apple-pie ideology right out of the gate.

Speaking to the temperance activists, Nucky relates a horrifying incident from his childhood, in which he was abandoned by his boozer dad during the blizzard of 1888 and clubbed three wharf rats to death to feed his family. This heart-rending tale turns out to be a lie, a politician telling a crowd what they obviously want to hear. Nucky is one of numerous "Boardwalk Empire" characters with two selves, public and private. There's another kind of character, though—one who is consistent no matter who he's dealing with. The first type of person tends to sync up with the criminal element, while the second type opposes it. (The latter category includes this show's version of Eliot Ness—Michael Shannon's creepy hardcase federal agent, Van Alden, who tells a fellow agent that enforcing Prohibition is "a godly pursuit" and doesn't seem to be kidding.) The opposition between these two types—characters who are what they appear to be, and characters who aren't—drives the debut and will animate the rest of the season.

If you grew up on history textbooks that adopted a neutral attitude toward Prohibition, the first half hour of the "Boardwalk" pilot might carry an electrifying charge. It's clear that aside from the ladies of the temperance union and a handful of other would-be reformers, nobody sees the new law as anything but a huge nuisance. Scorsese's facility for staging large, colorful events—his camera gliding through crowds, panning and lunging to pick out colorful bits of action—is showcased in the party counting down to Prohibition becoming law. It's a parody of a wake for a loved one who isn't actually dying, just going into hiding for a while. (There's a wonderful image of a baby carriage filled with liquor bottles that embodies the idea that the supposed death of drinking signals the birth of a new criminal culture.) Post-Prohibition, the question becomes not, "Will we be able to enjoy life without alcohol?" but "How will we get our booze now, and how much will it cost us?" Nucky is poised to make a fortune from this new conundrum because he spans two worlds, legitimate and illegitimate. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that Nucky's character expresses the idea that the worlds aren't as separate as one might like to think. From the ritualized, no-big-deal handing out of bribes and tribute payments in the "Boardwalk" pilot to the shameless collusion of gangsters, labor leaders, cops and even judges in GoodFellas, the Scorsese-Sopranos mentality insists that there isn't as much difference between the two. Watching character after character pocket ill-gotten cash in "Boardwalk" as if it's just another job benefit, I was reminded of a great line from Sweet Smell of Success: "My left hand hasn't seen my right hand in thirty years."

"Deadwood" and "Rome" mingled invented characters and plots with people and events drawn from history. "Boardwalk" does likewise, getting into the logistical details of implementing the Volstead Act and setting up an elaborate, disagreement-turned-feud between Nucky's organization and mobsters from Chicago (the series' other major location), while reserving the right to embellish the record in the name of drama. Nucky, for instance, is based on real-life Atlantic City boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, and while the gist of the character is accurate, some of the show's details are made up—including Nucky's complicated relationship with his protege, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a shell-shocked World War I veteran looking to change his fortunes, and Nucky's affection for an abused, pregnant housewife named Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald). But for all the ginned-up melodrama—including a climactic killing-two-birds-with-one-stone manuever by Nucky that seems somewhat half-assed for such an otherwise sharp and forward-thinking character—the pilot has an almost overpowering sense of physical reality. The buildings don't look new unless they're supposed to. The clothes look as if people were wearing them for a long time before the cameras started rolling. The blood, the sweat, the muzzle flashes and the cumulus clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke all testify that "Boardwalk Empire" isn't interested in presenting life as it should have been, but life as it probably was.

Tempted as I am to call this a gangster tale, the distribution of plot doesn't quite bear that description out. Winter and Scorsese devote a fair chunk of screen time to the burgeoning alliance between Nucky and two prominent gangsters from New York, 1919: Chicago White Sox fixer Arnold Rothstein (A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg) and "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza). The filmmakers contrast the difference between Rothstein and Luciano's bullheaded, upfront machismo and Nucky's more reticent approach. (Buscemi is terrific here, in a way that may sneak up on viewers. His unthreatening demeanor and hints of tenderness hide a tough interior; we get the sense that Nucky is used to being underestimated and has spent much of his adult life turning that quality to his advantage.)

But at least half of the pilot episode, maybe more, is less interested in gangster schemes than in capturing the temper of the times. In 1919 the United States was reeling from its role in World War I—the War to End All Wars, or so participants were told—and the sense of psychic dislocation that pervades this opening hour evokes American films of the post-Vietnam era. Jimmy Darmody's transformation from working stiff ex-soldier to aspiring gangster initially struck me as a bit arbitrary; Pitt captures the wounded warmth of this character so astutely—particularly in the reaction shots of Darmody interacting with his wife and son—that I wondered if some crucial piece of information ended up on the cutting-room floor. Outwardly he doesn't seem like a ruthless triggerman, even when he's at his most aggrieved and distressed—just a man who was forced to do a lot of killing and is now struggling to make sense of it.

But there's a big difference between movie psychology and the real thing. "Boardwalk" is more attuned to the latter, and its treatment of Jimmy might be the best example of this. Jimmy, a former Princeton student, repeatedly says that life back home makes no sense to him, that it's boring and weird, and that his combat experience utterly destroyed any sense of connection between morality and personal action. The World War I combat experience is now so remote to America's collective experience—there are only a handful of veterans left—that we don't have any reference point for the kind of wholesale slaughter that men like Darmody experienced. It was the first mechanized war, and the men that fought it  spent weeks in muddy, disease-ridden trenches, often surrounded by corpses, emerging just long enough to risk their lives in an attack on soldiers who were every bit as dehumanized and miserable. Pitt's face captures the strain of trying to make sense of such an experience, at a time when almost nobody gave the psychological well-being of soldiers a second thought. (The moment where a baby photographer tells Darmody how envious he is of Darmody's experience based on having read "accounts of derring-do" in newspapers is more disturbing than any of the gangland violence in the pilot.) This is a country that's been through great trauma and is starting to question whether widely-accepted mores are really imposed for the average working person's benefit or for the benefit of powerful people and institutions that shackle them in ways they can't even see. Darmody is throwing off the chains and rejecting his old self. His logic, however nihilistic, may be more defensible than that of the more experienced gangsters in his midst: It's something like, "I spent a long time killing for no good reason, and I got to be very good at it. At least this time maybe I'll make a little money at it." 

Scorsese's direction is economical throughout, giving viewers just enough information to establish a plot point or a smidgen of character psychology, then jumping to another place, another character. The first time I watched the 70-minute pilot (on a DVD screener) I looked at the time clock on my DVD player at what I assumed was nearly the end, and was stunned to realize that we were only 36 minutes in. The filmmaker is working in hyper-accelerated expository mode here—the mode he first began investigating in After Hours, perfected in GoodFellas, and cranked up to another exhausting level in the first hour of The Departed. The combination of dense storytelling, period detail, pitch-black humor and cynicism about human nature most vividly recalls Gangs of New York, a compromised epic that has many brilliant passages, but was seriously harmed by miscasting in central roles (Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz) and extensive studio interference. Many moments in the Boardwalk pilot evoke Gangs—especially the details about the collusion of corrupt public officials and gangsters—and throughout, the tough, funny, "This is how the world works" tone often suggests an unofficial re-do of that film. Although the setting is almost 70 years removed, Scorsese is covering some of the same pet subjects and themes here, and the result feels relaxed and exact. He's saying everything he wanted to say in Gangs in the "Boardwalk" pilot, with more precision and force, even though technically it's not him who's saying it.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series.