We All Have to Decide How Much Sin We Can Live With: 'Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season'

With its government corruption, political scandals, bruised soldiers just home from war, and catastrophic financial losses due to the original Ponzi scheme, this '20s tale isn't much different from politics and business these days.

Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season

Director: Martin Scorsese; Timothy Van Patten; Allen Coulter
Cast: Steve Buscemi; Michael Pitt; Kelly Macdonald; Michael Shannon
Distributor: HBO
Release date: 2012-01-10

Boardwalk Empire’s Atlantic City is awash in soft pastel colors, like a town made of pink and blue candy. But its sweet exterior belies what’s really going on in 1920: citizens brazenly passing out Ku Klux Klan recruitment flyers, men shuddering at the possibility of women winning the right to vote, mothers sedating their boisterous children with a milk-and-whiskey cocktail, wives and girlfriends using Lysol to prevent pregnancy, and powerful officials publicly feigning support for Prohibition while secretly popping champagne corks in celebration of profits to be made from the underground manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol.

One of these officials is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the Treasurer of Atlantic County who is as charismatic as he is corrupt. Nucky has a firm grip on Atlantic City, which he controls with a combination of ruthlessness, brutality, kindness, and charm. One minute he’s beguiling a room filled with pro-Temperance women, and the next he’s ordering Atlantic County’s Sheriff—who conveniently happens to be his brother, Eli (Shea Whigham)—to kill a troublesome witness to his illegal activity.

Nucky is referred to as “a dapper villain in a Sunday serial”, but there's so much more to him than that. He's an intriguing, mysterious, and multi-layered character brought to life in an impressive performance by Buscemi, who is believable and sympathetic as a man who is both a grieving widower and a benevolent playboy. Despite his lack of physical beauty, the well-dressed Nucky is sought-after by women not only because of his money, power, and connections, but because of his kind heart.

When he meets Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald)—a young and pregnant Irish immigrant who is seeking work for her husband—Nucky notices her black eye and correctly guesses that she is a victim of domestic violence. He slides an ever-present wad of cash out of his expensive suit, hands her a generous donation, and later orders two police officers on his payroll to give Margaret’s husband his due. Like a more refined and polished version of L.A. Confidential’s Officer Bud White, Nucky is a protector of abused women who will skirt the law to achieve justice—especially when Margaret’s husband physically abuses her to the point that she loses her baby.

Margaret and Nucky’s developing relationship is deep and conflicted, especially on Margaret’s part. Macdonald smoothly handles the nuances of Margaret’s personality, which is generally likeable yet realistically flawed. She is especially insensitive to Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)—a lonely World War I veteran and expert marksman assigned by Nucky to be her bodyguard—because she is repulsed by the facial disfigurement he suffered on the battlefield. Richard wears a metal mask, and during a touching scene in which Margaret reads The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to her children, he points to his mask and tells the kids that he is the Tin Man.

Margaret finally warms to Richard, and this is part of her transformative growth throughout the season. She changes from meek to outspoken while she vacillates between enjoying the comfortable new life Nucky has given her and struggling with the idea of being romantically linked to a criminal who, she is warned, is “capable of anything”. Her ethical dilemma is summed up by Nucky when he tells her that “we all have to decide how much sin we can live with.”

Sin—and the eradication of it—is the driving force of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), Nucky’s obsessive foe who is an agent with the Department of Internal Revenue and lives to uphold the Volstead Act. “I can offer you salvation,” he says to Margaret, although his intentions toward her are not pristine. Shannon oozes with talent and has the perfect physical attributes to portray Van Alden -- a priggish, driven, and ultimately evil G-man. This morally confused character is a standout in Boardwalk Empire -- a series that is crammed with rich personalities and a delightful blend of fictional and historical characters.

Among the real-life characters are Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, and Al Capone (Stephen Graham). Capone undergoes an interesting character arc as a vicious mobster and callous jokester who has an unexpected epiphany during a Bar Mitzvah. Graham—an Englishman—nails Capone’s Brooklyn accent and adeptly inhabits the character in a way that is an interpretation rather than an imitation. Capone’s relationship with Nucky’s protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt)—like all other relationships in Boardwalk Empire--develops slowly and believably, and is filled with clashing emotions.

Their association strengthens when Jimmy’s illegal activities force him to leave New Jersey and hide out in Chicago, leaving behind his common-law wife, Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and their young son. Jimmy and Angela’s union is already strained, and in his absence, the bohemian Angela develops a romantic relationship with a local photographer’s wife. When Jimmy—a hot-headed tough guy—returns home, he suspects the photographer and reacts by beating him senseless on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

However, when Jimmy learns the truth—and finds out that Angela has been plotting to leave him and flee to Paris with their son—he quietly forgives her. Although Pitt delivers a dazzling performance as Jimmy, this disappointing inconsistency in the script abruptly deflates a storyline packed with tension, and is not in keeping with Jimmy’s explosive nature. It is also doubtful that during an era in which women who cut their hair short were considered scandalous rebels (Jimmy looks at disgust at Angela when she chops her long locks) and ladies are chastised for swearing (“You’ve got a fresh mouth for a broad,” Lucky Luciano tells his paramour) that Jimmy would be so passive about Angela’s betrayal—despite the fact that he has betrayed her, too.

But this is the only unauthentic moment in an otherwise stellar series. The unmistakable style of Martin Scorsese—who is an executive producer of Boardwalk Empire and directed its pilot—is evident, especially during a scene in which blood slowly seeps onto a carpet from a gangster’s fatal gunshot wound—just as Tommy DeVito met his end in Goodfellas. Terence Winter (writer and executive producer of The Sopranos)’s involvement in Boardwalk Empire is also obvious, even in the casting of several small roles. The late Tom Aldredge (Carmela’s father in The Sopranos) plays Nucky’s father, and Max Casella is a small-time gangster in both series.

The Sopranos depicted mobsters as complex people who lead unconventional lives rife with common problems, and it presented storylines that took time to simmer and gradually came to a rolling boil. Boardwalk Empire effectively follows the same pattern. Even minor characters are vital components of the beautifully elaborate plot—especially Gretchen Moll as Jimmy’s attractive young mother, and Dabney Coleman as a retired gangster whose significance in Jimmy’s and Nucky’s lives is startlingly revealed at the end of the season.

Boardwalk Empire credibly and delightfully recreates the Roaring Twenties with the decade’s sumptuous fashion, its Jazz Age slang (men call their pals “boyo” and girls refer to their boyfriends as “daddy”), references to popular products (Nucky suggests taking Brioschi for indigestion), and a lush soundtrack studded with gems like "Some of These Days" and "My Man".

Given the historical accuracy of the series, the music in its introduction—played while Nucky stands at the Atlantic City shore while it fills with floating liquor bottles—at first seems oddly contemporary. But the modern music is appropriate and telling, as it indicates the timelessness of the issues and themes in the series. Take away the women’s Chanel silhouettes and the men’s fedoras, and the pathos of Boardwalk Empire -- with its government corruption, political scandals, family dysfunction, difficult romantic relationships, bruised soldiers just home from war, and catastrophic financial losses due to the original Ponzi scheme -- is not much different from politics and business these days. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons the series is so relatable.

The DVD contains character bios in written dossier format, and voice-over commentary of the episodes from the executive producers, writers, and cast. It also offers a wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creation of the series, which includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, and various cast members. Additionally, there's a fascinating feature that unveils the meticulous research and historical accuracy required to re-create Atlantic City of the '20s, which Terrence Winter describes as “Times Square on the ocean.”


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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