Dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg
The Departed. Otherwise known as the film for which they finally gave Martin Scorsese the Oscar. Or Oscars – Best Film and Best Director. At the time I thought the trophy seemed more of a lifetime achievement award, a rectification of previous oversights. Knowing that the film in question was not set on Scorsese’s trademark New York streets and that it was a remake of Hong Kong actioneer Infernal Affairs did nothing to put my mind at rest.
Thankfully the finished article made me feel happier. The Departed is a twisty-turny tale of deceit and deception where the bullets fly as thick as the f-bombs. And rather than focusing on Italian mobsters in NYC, here the setting is Irish mobsters in Boston – and the cops trying to bring them down.
Frank Costello is the criminal kingpin here, played by Jack Nicholson (of Chinatown and The Shining) at his roguish, devilish best. He combines charm with casual matter-of-fact brutality (appearing from a back room up to the elbows in gore or waving a severed hand around the breakfast table). And of course he goes to the opera (see The Untouchables for an exploration of why listening to opera in an American movie automatically makes a character a villain). The Massachusetts State Police send a mole into his organisation, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, to bring him down. But Costello has a mole of his own high in the State Police, Staff Sergeant Sullivan (Matt Damon). It then becomes a race against time for Costigan and Sullivan to identify the other “rat” before their identity is revealed.
There are other dangers too. It becomes clear that both moles are under strain from their double lives even without this extra threat. Billy constantly pops pills and it is implied that Sullivan has problems in the bedroom.
The storyline might not be original, but Scorsese knows how to make a great film. The first twenty minutes, establishing the characters, is told almost as an extended montage. Once the chess pieces are in place, then we have the titles. The game can begin. And the chess analogy is a good one. Yes, there is violence (a lot of violence), but this is an intellectual battle – literally a war of intelligence. It relies upon positioning. Both Costigan and Sullivan have to protect their own positions within their respective organisations while at the same time doing enough to help thwart their rivals. They play the long game and have to think through their actions: what am I trying to achieve and how do I explain my actions to my superiors? So when the police pick up one of Costello’s men Sullivan marches in to the interview room pretending to be his attorney. By giving him a phone he allows the mobsters to be warned, and then sends his men to bust the location where they had been. My mind was often tying itself in knots trying to figure out how they would get out of their current predicament. Frank’s earlier words rung eerily true: “When I was your age they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun what’s the difference?”
In terms of the actors there is not a single weak link. Scorsese can call on whoever he wants, and here the star power includes not just the high-watt charisma of Nicholson, the always-watchable Damon, and DiCaprio (who, after seeing him in this and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I am rapidly coming to warm to for the first time in my life), but also Alec Baldwin (last seen as Jimmy Doolittle in Pearl Harbor), the avuncular Martin Sheen, and the ferociously sweary Mark Wahlberg as the cops, and Ray Winstone as Frank’s number two. Even a relative newcomer like Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, the apex of the Costigan-Sullivan love triangle gives a great account of herself. The love triangle is the one element that I don’t feel is properly integrated. Obviously she is there as the one person the two moles can open up to, but I fail to see why Sullivan would risk exposure by letting her into his life, and I fail to see why she would suddenly start a relationship with Billy (okay, I know he’s Leo DiCaprio, but is threatening suicide really the way to win a woman?). Other than that though, it really is a high-stakes intelligent action film and a great watch. Looking back at the Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director from 2006 I can see that actually there was not any other outstanding competition on the short-list (except for Paul Greengrass for United 93 possibly). It might not have been a Raging Bull or Goodfellas but then again it wasn’t a Gangs of New York either. So I shall no longer bemoan that Marty finally won the Oscar.
What have I learnt about Massachusetts?
A lot. It might all be learnings about Boston, but I sure did learn a lot. For starters everyone is Irish. The Irish run the city, on both sides of the divide. No one else gets a look in, be they Sikh, Puerto Rican or black. Particularly not if they are black (they are, apparently, "fucked"). Among the Irish families there is a lot of clannishness and distrust of the police force. The Irish influence (and that of the Catholic Church) can be seen everywhere, from the religious processions, to the police bagpipers, to the inter-service rugby.
The Irish are principally situated in the poorer areas in the south of Boston (the “Southie projects”). The middle classes live on the North Shore of the river. And ne’er the twain shall meet. They even speak differently, dropping ‘R’s as they head south. Their only rivals in organised crime are the Italians who come up from Providence, Rhode Island. It might be a different state but it is not very far away.
The state police are a breed apart from the normal cops (though even they are kept in the dark by the FBI). They tend to go in all guns blazing.
Oh, and people refer to other people as “Guineas”. I don’t know why. And everyone wears baseball caps.
Can we go there?
The film is set in Boston. But comparatively little of the film was shot there – Scorsese kept the action closer to his New York home (mostly because the tax breaks were better). Even the view of the Massachusetts State Capitol seen from Sullivan’s apartment is fictitious (that view can only be obtained from the roof of Suffolk University.
Some locations were genuinely Boston however. Movie tours can show you some of them. The police play rugby against the fire brigade on Boston Common. Costigan chases Sullivan through Boston’s Chinatown. Queenan and Dignan meet Billy by Neponset bridge in Dorchester; they later confront Frank at Long Wharf. Queenan and Costigan meet on the Red Line. The roof top scenes (at ‘344 Wash’) were actually at 12 Farnsworth Street (home to the Flour Bakery). The mob hangout (where Frank is shown up to his elbows in blood before calling in ‘new guys’) is actually the premises of the Charles Street Cleaners. The final bust on Costello’s gang was filmed at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy.
So where in New York was the film shot? The opening scene, where Frank first meets the young Sullivan was filmed at the (now-closed) Park Luncheonette, 334 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn. The police academy shooting range, classroom and graduation scenes were filmed at Fort Schuyler on the campus of State University of New York’s Maritime College. The Irish Haven bar at 5721 4th Ave (also in Brooklyn) was where Billy ordered his cranberry juice (did he have to let it linger?).
Overall Rating: 4/5