I’ve been fascinated by the history of Prohibition and organized crime since I was a lad. Like many Baby Boomsters, this interest was sparked by the old black-and-white TV cop show The Untouchables, which ran from 1959 to 1963.
Starring Robert Stack as real-life Treasury agent Eliot Ness, The Untouchables (available on DVD) was the Miami Vice and The Sopranos of its day. It’s a little creaky now and has as much to do with factual Prohibition history as Fess Parker does with Davy Crockett. Still, it stands up thanks to its elaborate production, flashy direction, brassy Nelson Riddle score, chewy dialogue, booming gun battles, and gallery of great character performances. Its best episodes rise to the level of high-flying noir movies.
And so, I was all moonshine for the 2010 premiere of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Boardwalk Empire tells the Prohibition story through the splashy lens of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the forerunner of Las Vegas and still one of America’s biggest entertainment and gambling oases . . . and a major center of criminal activity during the 1920s. It’s about to start its second season this Sunday. On the one hand, I will be there. On the other hand, though . . . .
The first season of Boardwalk Empire sure promised much, considering it was created by Terence Winter, a writer and producer of The Sopranos. Its first episode was directed by the unbeatable Martin Scorsese, who set the look and tone of the show for its first 11-episode season.
The promise was mostly kept. It’s a very very good show. Still, as I dutifully and closely watched every episode, sometimes twice, the wick at the top of my spine felt damp, rarely flaring to life. A Vegas jackpot’s worth of money and effort has been poured into this show . . . but all that effort there are some barren spots that are worth pondering.
Great as it looks, Boardwalk Empire sports too much spit and shine. For all its period precision, the show feels sleek, slick, and mannered in a familiar HBO way. It holds me at arm's length, never pulls me into its world, out of my modern-day living room and into that time (as I am by the great, grungy, and lamented Deadwood). It’s like standing before a museum diorama: The details are perfect, but there’s an artificial cleanliness , similar to a 1950s Douglas Sirk Hollywood movie, not my favorite genre. For all the verisimilitude, it still feels like being enacted on a very pricey, fussed-over soundstage. No grit, little mud, and even less life. No whiff of sea air, or of sand hissing across the boardwalk, catching in my collar and shoes.
Another problem lies with its casting. Nucky Johnson, the real-life treasurer and unelected boss of Atlantic City during the Dry Days and beyond, was, by some accounts I've read, a looming block of radiant power, as men like him often are--the kind of guy who can open a door with his stare. In two photos I've seen, he looks like a perfect main street Babbitt, a well-fed, Anglo-Rotarian who loomed over that age as much as Al Capone.
Also, the historical Nucky Johnson, in another sense, resembles, well, fictional Tony Soprano. This put the producers in an understandable dilemma: No way would they cast James Gandolfini, nor did they--or we--want The Road to the Sopranos: The Prohibition Prequel.
A further digression please: When it comes to fictional narratives of historic events, I'm no absolutist for accuracy. While it's great when an historical fiction captures an era's spirit or its everyday details, a movie, TV series or novel, has to conjure its own world, completely and unashamedly. If you really manage to convince me in your movie that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Martian cabal led by Herman Munster, well, hats off then (though I wouldn't try if I were you, Ed Wood fanboy). If art has a "job," it's to enhance life by making the impossible or unlikely, possible and likely. Making a carbon copy of history doesn't make it art, or even good. If you want real history, non-fiction remains your best bet.
Returning to my point: Boardwalk's producers faced a casting problem, and to solve it, they drove as far as away from Tony Soprano and the historic Nucky Johnson as possible . . . and cast Steve Buscemi as Atlantic City's kingpin, renaming him Nucky Thompson.
This is absolutely no knock on Steve Buscemi. For over 25 years, he's been a beloved and honored character actor, etching superb portrayals of snaggle-toothed guttersnipes and sweaty losers, making him a downtown, back-alley Warren Oates or Strother Martin, no mean compliment from me or anyone.
But as for playing a man with his mitts on the levers of power; who can move others to corruption, murder and mayhem, with equal parts charm and menace . . . well, as one Buscemi fan put it to me, he is so not that guy. He is not Nucky Thompson. He's Nucky's expendable sidekick. The kind of loser at whom Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables series would famously bellow "You're DEAD!"
For all his talent and dedication, Steve Buscemi hasn't the kind of wattage or weight to play a man of power and respect. His small frame is not to blame. (James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, two height-challenged powder kegs from Hollywood's Golden Era, would have flung Buscemi to Mars by his ear . . . and, of course, in real history, there's Napoleon to consider.) For me, Buscemi lacks that dominating glow, that mask of command.
Other casting problems nibble the edges of Boardwalk Empire. Michael Kenneth Williams, the indelible and magnificent Omar from The Wire, wasn't given much to do in the first season as the cleverly named Chalky White, and I hope they fix that this season. In the same way that Nucky's suit seems too hang too big on Steve Buscemi, Chalky's wardrobe seems too small for the estimable Mr. Williams.
The role of Al Capone also appears under-cast. Like Buscemi as Thompson, Stephen Graham, a British actor who made a credible Baby Face Nelson in Michael Mann's boring Dillinger movie, seems too small of stature and presence, too recessive to play a blunderbuss like Al Capone.
Again, it's not a matter of historical nitpicking. Character actor Neville Brand played Capone in The Untouchables series and, while looking nothing like the real man, credibly portrayed the coarse brutality of a gang boss. (If you want to see a real casting error, you must simply stop your life to watch rail-thin Waspy Jason Robards play Capone in Roger Corman's quite historically accurate but flat-footed The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.) Like everyone in Boardwalk Empire, Graham is an excellent actor doing good work, except I can't see him ever conquering the entire city of Chicago. At least not the way Capone did.
So, I'll stop my whining. And I'll stick with this show 'til the last shot is fired, the last gangster falls, and the smoke clears away. There's still much to like and the way they re-weave the historical narrative (the fall of Arnold Rothstein; the apprenticeship and rise of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky) fascinate me no end. It can never be 100-percent accurate, but it could well have happened that way.
Best of all is Michael Shannon as the homicidal, borderline crazy--but fictional, we hope--Treasury agent Nelson Van Alden. Shannon’s blockish head and dark cave eyes reveal a cramped, seething, coppered soul, possibly the most dangerous man in Boardwalk Empire’s universe. He embodies all the cultural conflicts that Prohibition brought to the surface: the clash between insane, cold-hearted idealism and messy human existence, the struggle between how we believe we should be and what we really are. He's as much a creation of that terrible law as the gangsters who rose to power. No wonder Prohibition failed so miserably. One look at Van Alden might well have caused the real Eliot Ness to blanch and hurry out of the Treasury Department employment office, never to be heard from again.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
(Re-edited 9/26/11; 10/7/11)
(Re-edited 9/26/11; 10/7/11)