As far back as I can remember, I have been enamored with racketeers. My love affair with gangsters began when I read Mario Puzo’s definitive work on the subject, The Godfather, when I was about 13 years old. Since that time I’ve read numerous biographies of real life gangsters (The 3 piece suit kind, not the baggy-pants-shouting-over-slow-techno kind)and just about every work of fiction on the subject. I have whiled away many hours absorbing feature films and documentaries on the lives and actions of syndicate men–both real and imagined.
Though I really enjoyed HBO’s The Sopranos, I felt that it became forced toward the end of its six-season run. My dwindling interest in this sort of pay cable stretch-play storytelling was the main reason I have only recently begun watching HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster story Boardwalk Empire. In many ways, the Atlantic City based show feels like Sopranos: Episode 1, but it achieves so much more.
Boardwalk Empire weaves its fictional characters into a boozy tapestry with real historical figures and events. It utilizes everything from women’s suffrage and the election of President Warren Harding to the striking by underpaid black workers in the “Plantation by the Sea affair” as backdrops for the rampant political corruption with which the program is concerned. The show is produced and sometimes directed by Martin Scorsese, the architect of the modern gangster picture. Scorsese’s attention to detail has created a mobster series that feels more like The Great Gatsby than The Godfather.
The main character is Atlantic County Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Nucky is based on a real Atlantic County politician who ran the crime syndicate on the boardwalk in the 20s and 30s. He manages to keep his hands clean while receiving a cut of every dollar made in his city; he does so by installing those loyal to him in positions of power. His election fixing and gerrymandering are called into question–as is his lavish lifestyle on a country treasurer’s salary.
Thompson moves in circles with people you may have heard of. He has dealings with John Torrio, the up-and-coming Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.
Steve Buscemi brilliantly plays Nucky Thompson. Does anyone remember when Buscemi was a comedic actor showing up in all those Adam Sandler pictures? Why is it that all I can think of when I see him is Mr. Pink? Remember the wood chipper in Fargo?
This role does little to rectify that image. He’s clad in the best suits, riding in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, and drinking in his fiefdom. He also portrays Nucky as quiet, brooding and troubled when he’s behind closed doors. His odd personal life, and his detachment, make Nucky someone you want to succeed.
Through the thick tobacco smoke and the sound of clinking glasses filled with illegal hooch, Boardwalk Empire shines. It is a flawed period piece that does the history justice, while taking artistic license with some of the plots. The show is a delightful ride in a Model A Ford–a boozy, bloody, violent and engrossing ride.