A big, enjoyably nasty piece of work, Boardwalk Empire zooms in on Atlantic City in the 1920s. Prohibition has just gone into effect, and the city’s corrupt treasurer — Steve Buscemi’s oily, funny, nihilistic, knobbykneed Nucky Thompson — is handing out favors and calling in markers right and left. You barely need to check the credits to know that Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, because even the planks in the boardwalk gleam with his beautiful, cynical rot. And Sopranos writer-producer Terence Winter has clearly taken what he learned about the allure of amorality and run with it here.
Based on a real-life Nucky (Johnson, not Thompson), Buscemi’s shifty-eyed fixer has no scruples about ordering beat-downs, but he also has a soft heart for a few people who impress him. One is Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, a smart but indigent World War I vet who’ll do as he’s told with tortured loyalty to rise in Nucky’s operation. The other is Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret, a poor, honest woman trapped in an abusive marriage whom Nucky helps out?why? It remains a poignant mystery in the early hours of the series.
What bodes well for Boardwalk as a weekly endeavor is that its Scorsese-fancy pilot is the weakest (the showiest, the slowest) of the episodes I’ve seen. The production becomes more sleek, emotionally complex, and sly in its subsequent hours. The casting of Buscemi — a veteran character actor who’s been great in movies ranging from Reservoir Dogs to The Big Lebowski — as a leading man and lover is both daring and mostly a success. I say ”mostly” because, however terrific it is to see someone as gifted as Buscemi star in his own show, he falls a bit short in the area of screen magnetism.
Unfortunately for Buscemi and Boardwalk, there are important precedents to which it should be compared. Is this show better than William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) or Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), both Prohibition-era gangster tales? No, it’s not. Boardwalk lacks their narrative momentum — both movies put the roar in the Roaring ’20s — and Buscemi doesn’t possess the feral energy of Enemy’s James Cagney or the brute force of Scarface’s Paul Muni.
Boardwalk is very much a gangster saga for our times. (It even finds a role for one of the great modern gangsters: Michael Kenneth Williams — the magnificent Omar on The Wire — plays bootlegger Chalky White.) What Buscemi brings to this production is his great gift for channeling neurotic self-consciousness into a man of action. He may fret about retaining his empire, but you believe Nucky Thompson is a lord of venality, right down to his immaculate spats. B+