Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The photo above was snapped sometime in the early to mid-1950s on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The two boys in the light pants are the police chief's son from my Jersey town (the shorter of the two) and his cousin, and that's my old man in the background with his spiffy shoes partially on view and his back turned to the camera.
I'm the glum faced kid in the dark pants holding what I suspect is the program for the famous "Steel Pier" where we saw the even more famous diving horse. I loved that experience so I suspect the glum look is my not wanting to be associated with the squares beside me with their top buttons buttoned and their sleeves unrolled as mine obviously aren't. Markers, tiny as they may be, of distinguishing those who got it and those who didn't at the time.
A time before Disneyland (or right around when it was first built) a place my family wouldn't have gone to anyway, and Atlantic City was still America's playland, even if close to its zenith (though we didn't know it, or at least I didn't) almost at the penultimate moment of its sudden decline before its resurrection in the age of casinos that came a few decades later.
What the new HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE gets is that the most interesting time in A.C.'s history began when Prohibition did, as does this series. It's gotten either raves or pans from the reviews I've read, all of them comparing it to either THE SOPRANOS (the creator of BOARDWALK EMPIRE won an Emmy writing for that seminal TV series) or producer (and director of the first episode, which is the only one that's aired and I've seen) Martin Scorcese's trademark gangland films like CASINO or both. Either saying BOARDWALK EMPIRE compares well with them or falls short of them.
My opinion falls somewhere in between, and the film I'd compare it most closely to is Scorcese's GANGS OF NEW YORK. Like that, I find BOARDWALK EMPIRE gets a lot of the history correct and yet still messes some of the key ingredients up, mostly through miscasting, at least in my opinion. In GANGS OF NEW YORK Daniel Day-Lewis was extraordinary, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz as Irish immigrants were, despite their best efforts, kind of a joke. And Liam Nissan's screen time was way too brief.
In BOARDWALK EMPIRE some historical bits are not only accurate but perfectly rendered while others seem lost. I hardly recognized Dabney Coleman as "The Commodore" who pushes Henry Ford's anti-semitic tome on Steve Buscmei's character— "Nucky Thompson"—but Buscemi ignores it because his Thompson has bigger problems than the "The International Jew" as Ford's diatribe was titled. Coleman doesn't get near enough screen time for my taste.
Buscemi on the other hand is in what seems like almost every scene. And in many ways he's wrong as the real life "Nucky Johnson" who ran Atlantic City back then. Johnson was 6'4" they say, which in 1920 would be like being 6'8" now. And not skinny! A real hard, tough, typical Jersey political machine guy (my father was an atypical one, very low on the totem poll in the Essex County Democratic Party only years after the photo above was snapped, so I know a little about these guys whatever the era).
Buscemi obviously doesn't come close to that kind of guy, physically, or tempermentally. So he's miscast in terms of authenticity and historical truth. But he's such a fascinating actor to watch, with that hang dog mug and voice like like a screeching needs-to-be-oiled train wheel, and just his whole weasely presence when he plays these kind of characters, that even if you do know anything about the kind of character he's supposed to be playing, or the actual one, you let that go to just watch a master at work.
I can't say the same for all of the rest of the cast or all the writing they're given to mouth (unless they got to improv some). Like Michael Pitt as a fictional character—an ex-Princeton man who fought in the trenches of WWI which changed him in ways this first epidsode seems conflicted about, either he's suffering from Post Traumatic Distress (which in those days they called "shell shock" and did little to nothing to help) as he seems to be in a few minutes of one or two scenes, or he's lost his moral compass, which he seems to be saying in other bits of scenes, as a result of what he saw and experienced in the war, or he's just a true "wise guy" which he seems to be coming off as in other bits of scenes.
But whatever he is, in some scenes he seems not only out of place as a character but as an actor, coming across as way too contemporary or as a fictional device to satisfy TV viewers' need for simple explication and give Buscemi a younger more handsome acting partner to fill some scenes or give Buscemi's Thompson a foil and device to explain what might otherwise be too calculatingly self-aggrandizing and nasty for the introduction of a lead character (like the device in THE SOPRANOS of Tony seeing a shrink and of his mother being the epitome of evil so he comes off more human etc.).
I don't buy Pitt as any kind of war veteran, let alone a doughboy suffering from the horrors of battle, or as any kind of Roaring Twenties F. Scott Fitzgerald Princeton type. Though he is interesting to watch on screen at times, at other times he's just distracting for my taste.
And the actor playing the young Al Capone seems like another device, but not well used at least in this episode, coming across as a weaker junior member of THE SORPRANOS, even sounding like he's more from the 21st Century or THE JERSEY SHORE than the Jazz Age.
There are a lot of historically inaccurate figures of speech and mannerisms, which I suppose can't be avoided, though they were for the most part in another HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE has been compared to accurately because it too was based on historical fact surrounded by fictional embellishments: DEADWOOD.
Hopefully BOARDWALK EMPIRE will live up to that standard in historical eras epically serialized on TV. We'll see.