HBO has recently premiered Boardwalk Empire, a lavish new series that seeks to recreate Atlantic City chicanery during the Prohibition era. HBO really went to town on this one. Not only did it get Martin Scorcese to direct (leading me to ask my husband, disingenuously, “didn’t he used to direct real movies?”), it’s obvious that HBO was ready to spend generously on the production itself. The sets and costumes are gorgeous. For a pedantic purist — and I am one — it’s an A+ job.
I’d almost enjoy watching the show if it wasn’t for that pesky little problem that crops up in so many Hollywood products: the need to sling gratuitous insults at Republicans.
I blogged at length about this phenomenon after plunking down ten of my hard-earned after-tax dollars to see Julie & Julia. That movie was sold as a charming romantic comedy/biopic, one that compared Julia Child’s love life to that of a modern young woman who undertook to bake a Julia Child recipe every day for a year.
It was another movie with lavish production values and a loving tone. Meryl Streep played Child with shrieking verve, while Amy Adams was the neurotic Julie of the present day. I’m not sure I would have liked the movie that much under any circumstances, given that Streep was exhausting and Adams irritating, but the movie lost me completely with its gratuitous swipes at Republicans. As I wrote a little over a year ago:
I started getting uncomfortable when Julia Child and her husband used the fact that Julia’s Pasadena-based father was visiting to do a little McCarthy and Republican bashing. Still, it’s pretty much de rigueur in movies that involve the 1950s for filmmakers to show their liberal bona fides by bashing McCarthy. We’ve known since the 60s that Hollywood will never accept that old Joe was right, and the government did have a ridiculous number of communists and communist sympathizers anxious to do harm to the United States. In Hollywood-land, only the excesses of McCarthyism (and there were indeed such excesses) live on in collective memory. I therefore stayed with the movie despite this pro forma McCarthy indictment.
Where the movie lost me was during a scene in the modern era. Its genesis is the fact that Julie, whose blog is taking off, is expecting a famous food publisher for dinner. The night before the planned dinner she had made Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon — and then burned it. The next day, she calls in sick to work so that she could remake the time consuming dish. She carefully (and falsely) blogs that she is sick and then blogs later that, miraculously, she is well again, so as to lend an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative.
On her return to work the next day, she discovers that her boss has read this false blog entry, and is offended that she’d referred to work and that she’d obviously lied about her health. Then (and I’m quoting from memory here), this bit of dialogue emerges from the bosses mouth: “You’re lucky I’m a nice guy. If I were a Republican, you’d be fired. But I’m not (or I’m trying not to be) a schmuck.” (Half the Marin audience laughed.)
Boardwalk Empire does exactly the same thing: it throws in a swipe at Republicans that does absolutely nothing to advance the plot, but simply allows the Hollywood types to indulge in their usual mean-spirited nudging and winking at their fellow liberals. To understand just how offensive the dialogue I’ll quote is, you need a little background.
The series begins at the very end of 1919, right before Prohibition went into effect. We’re introduced to Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, Treasurer for Atlantic City’s council. Within minutes we learn that, while he affects a pious exterior, and sells himself to the public as a devout prohibitionist, he is in fact planning to ally himself with independent rum runners, as well as the Chicago and New York mafia, in order to enrich himself and his cronies. He is, in a word, despicable.
Within the first few minutes of the movie, Nucky attends a New Year’s Eve dinner with his fellow council members and the mayor. All are eagerly awaiting Prohibition’s spoils. It is within this context that the following dialogue ensues:
Nucky: Mr. Mayor, Friends, fellow members of the City Council. As you know, in less than 2 hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation’s Congress.
Assembled councilmen: Boo! Hiss!
Nucky: To those beautiful, ignorant bastards.
Assembled councilmen: Hear, hear!
Nucky: Rest assured that, dry though the country may be, I am in the midst of concluding arrangements and will keep Atlantic City wet as a mermaid’s t**t.
Mayor: Gee. You’re f***ing mermaids now?
Nucky: Every vote counts, Mr. Mayor.
Unknown council member: A Republican through and through!
Did that last line add anything to the scene? I don’t think so. It simply showed that Martin Scorcese and friends are so lost in a world of Republican-hating that it leaks out of them constantly, like gas from a swamp.
The thing is that, as long as the public pays, these Hollywood types get away with this kind of crude disrespect. We go to the movies and say, “Well, what can you do? Other than that, it was a good movie.” And we keep on paying for HBO because it feeds us sports and tolerable movies and other amusing stuff.
But really, shouldn’t we be making some sacrifices here? I can live without a few movies if it means sending a message to Hollywood that it is not all right to take gratuitous swipes at half the movie-going population. Can you?
UPDATE: Elwin, in the comment, advises me that Nucky was, in fact, a Republican, a bit of information for which I am most appreciative. I don’t think that changes the point I was making, which is that the throwaway line about Republicans was gratuitous in context. This is not a serious documentary that looks at the political scene locally, in Atlantic City, and nationally. In that case, one would a scholarly approach to the town’s political make-up that discusses the political parties and the nature of those parties at that time. Instead, the characters are introduced simply as crooks and the line exists only to insult.
UPDATE II: Apropos the Julia & Julie post to which I linked, a very reputable, erudite, learned scholar has advised me that McCarthy was every bit as vile as history has painted him. There were communists in the government and the military, says my friend, but McCarthy came along after this threat had been removed, and simply used the backwash to destroy people for his own satisfaction.
The problem, as I see it, is that Leftist historians use McCarthy’s foul acts to hide the fact that the Communists had, in fact, infiltrated government. He becomes the historic straw man for the very real threat to America’s constitutional integrity and national security.