‘Boardwalk Empire’ a complex look into corruption

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, December 11, 2010

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

That statement by James “Jimmy” Darmody (Michael Pitt) in the series premiere of “Boardwalk Empire” sets the tone as the season methodically progresses and Atlantic County treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) becomes brazenly involved in political corruption, gambling, racketeering and bootlegging at the commencement of prohibition in 1920 Atlantic City.

I kept coming back to that statement as I watched the first season. For me, it’s the epitome of the series, or the first season anyway. And as the season progresses, it’s apparent Nucky is definitely not half of a gangster.

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If you haven’t seen “Boardwalk Empire,” which premiered this fall and its finale aired Sunday, you may want to start from the beginning. (HBO will air the series in its entirety starting Dec. 13, you can watch it on demand, or wait for the DVD release.) Regardless, it’s well worth 50 minutes on a Sunday evening.

It’s graphic. It’s well crafted. It’s complex. But would you expect anything less from Emmy Award-winning writer and producer Terence Winter, the guy who brought us “The Sopranos?” And it’s like The Sopranos – or a number of other well-written, big budget series by HBO – in that it was heavily promoted like the heap of mindless action flicks turning up this season. But like most HBO original dramas – and unlike those action step-brothers – “Boardwalk Empire” is the antithesis of mindless.

The story centers on Thompson, but also features Darmody, who strives to become as powerful as Thompson; young widow Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) who turns to Thompson for help; and federal prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is trying to single-handedly take down the entire Atlantic City bootlegging operation. Each has his or her own (unethical) agenda, and each agenda clashes with the other.

Bescemi’s character Nucky Thompson, who runs Atlantic City and has a strong-hold on the Republican Party at the national level, is loosely based on the real-life Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, Atlantic County treasurer and political fixer during the 1920s. But beyond the main storyline is a complex series of subplots, some of which also involve historical figures and events of the period. Jockeying for power and bootlegging control are well-known gangsters such as Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham). And other events of the 1920s play a significant part in the show’s storyline, such as women’s suffrage and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

As the season progresses (and as expected), it becomes increasingly difficult to find a “good guy.” It’s told from the perspective of Thompson, the antagonist, but I’m not sure anyone qualifies as a protagonist. Even Schroeder, who originally turns to Thompson for the sake of her fatherless children, evolves for the worse.

Ironically, in the dénouement of the season finale, Thompson speaks out against the illegal selling of liquor in a season-wrap-up sort of way:

“Tragic as it is, I need not remind you that the passage of the 18th Amendment has given rise to a new breed of criminal.”

Pot, meet kettle. To say the least, the second season shouldn’t be any lighter.

Looking forward to…

The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, opened Friday. Jolie takes on her now-tired role of secret agent, while Depp takes a break from the quirky.

The third installment from the land of Narnia, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the debut for Fox in this series (Disney produced the first two). It will be interesting to see what, if any, changes are noticeable.

The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, opened in limited theaters this weekend. Bale takes a backseat to Wahlberg in one of the more anticipated films of the season.

Disney’s TRON: Legacy launches Friday, Dec. 17. It will be interesting to see how much this film, starring Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund, has strayed from the original 1982 cult classic. The film has Midwestern ties, as its director, Joseph Kosinski, is a 1992 graduate of Marshalltown (Iowa) High School. Legacy is the first major motion picture for Kosinski.

Adam Harringa is Audience Manager for the Austin Daily Herald and will be reviewing both the big and small screen presentations.