me out here: (l-r) DiCaprio and Sheen in The Departed.
by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s last two pic-tures left the lingering impression
that the eminent filmmaker was, as they say, lost. Gangs
of New York had an unconvincing love triangle, an unconvincing
father-and-son conflict and a fabricated social context. The
Aviator was a great improvement—stylish and insightful
where Gangs was plainly dishonest—but there was the
still nagging suspicion that there was no reason for Martin
Scorsese to direct a big glossy Hollywood biopic. Now,
Scorsese has directed a remake of Infernal Affairs,
one of the most-praised Asian crime dramas of the last few
years; one couldn’t help but wonder if he was still, as they
used to say, “at sea.”
Absolutely not. The Departed is his best film since
GoodFellas. It has a conflict that seems tailor-made
for the director; parallel stories of a cop undercover with
the mob, and a mobster undercover with the cops. Leonardo
DiCaprio is Billy Costigan, the cop who wanted to escape his
ties to South Boston and his criminal family and ends up undercover
with the biggest Irish crime boss in town, Frank Costello
(Jack Nicholson). Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan, another South
Boston native who grew up seemingly following the straight-and-narrow,
but was actually as crooked as they come. One of the film’s
great pleasures, as the story moves inexorably to its catastrophic
climax, is wondering just how honest Costigan is—and how morally
warped Sullivan might turn out to be.
Scorsese really gets into questions of character. The slick
state-police task force going after organized crime is neatly
split between showboating investigators like Ellerby (Alec
Baldwin), and the deadly serious undercover team led by Oliver
Queenan (Martin Sheen, even-tempered but shrewd) and Sgt.
Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, hilariously insulting and in-your-face
to everyone). Neither side trusts the other, and for good
reason—the rat, Sullivan, is Ellerby’s favorite cop. Ellerby’s
blind spot is his cockiness and desire to win at any cost;
conversely, Queenan’s too-studied patience keeps his undercover
agents well-protected, but, perhaps, undercover too long.
If Queenan is the benevolent father figure (and Ellerby the
wicked uncle), Costello is the devil-dad. No surprises here:
Nicholson’s on his best behavior for the first half, but eventually
goes into his “Jack” shtick. That said, he’s pretty funny
at times, and Scorsese keeps him comparatively restrained.
The tension steadily builds as the two undercover “agents”
become aware of, and begin to hunt down, each other. DiCaprio
is appropriately—if, occasionally, excessively—tortured, while
Damon is a charming, vicious, insecure bastard. Credit DiCaprio
and Damon with delivering, by the end, real insight into their
true natures. There’s a mutual love interest in the form of
a police shrink (Vera Farmiga); this is probably the least
convincing part of the film. On the other hand, the picture
is unimaginable without her. The audience needs a break from
all that testosterone once in a while.
The real surprise, aside from Scorsese making a fine movie
again, is the ease with which Wahlberg steals every scene
he’s in. Sure, he’s playing one of the few honest characters,
but it’s more than that. He projects an onscreen authority
that was previously, and conspicuously, absent. That’s why
it’s fitting that he gets to express the feelings of the audience
near the end of the film with abrupt clarity.
Put All That Shit in Your Head?
U.S. vs. John Lennon
by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld
The documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a confusing
film. This is not to say that it’s hard to follow; it’s not.
It’s a slick, well-designed, well-shot production. The directors,
David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, in collaboration with a visual-effects
crew, do a deft job of enlivening archival material related
to the deportation proceedings initiated by the U.S. government
against John Lennon in the early ’70s.
Nifty digital effects—former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover
glowers in photonegative; luminescent text excerpts swoop
toward the audience from relevant documents—add drama to stock
footage that might have come across as a little too made-for-public-TV.
The talking heads—everyone from former U.S. Sen. George McGovern
to former radicals John Sinclair and Angela Davis to media
types Geraldo Rivera and Walter Cronkite to notorious G-man
G. Gordon Liddy—are all beautifully made up and flatteringly
lighted. It’s not a cheap piece of work.
The movie makes a convincing case that the U.S. government,
during the end of an increasingly paranoid Richard Nixon’s
first term, began a program of surveillance against an increasingly
outspoken and political John Lennon. The result of this investigation,
spurred by Lennon’s association with radicals and rabble-rousers
such as Black Panther Bobby Seale and Yippies Abbie Hoffman
and Jerry Rubin, was an attempted deportation, which Lennon
fought and won. But the question remains: So what?
As far as I know, no one has contested any of this in decades.
It’s old news. And, really (yeah, bring it, Baby Boomers),
does anyone care about John Lennon anymore? What’s the point
of rehashing this story?
The most likely point is dropped by Gore Vidal, discussing
Lennon’s anti-Vietnam War activism, about three-quarters of
the way through the movie: “Lennon came to represent life;
and Mr. Nixon—and Mr. Bush—represent death.” Ah-ha.
We are, apparently, to take this movie as a cautionary tale:
Those who do not learn from history, etc. Fair enough. But
is revisiting the charismatic myth of a former pop star really
the best way to address the issues of the current geopolitical
crisis? I’m sure that the threat of removal was a huge pain
in the ass for millionaire Lennon and his family; and the
way in which a trumped-up charge (based on an old possession
bust) was used by the administration to intimidate a high-profile
PR problem is disgraceful. But, as victims go, Lennon suffered
little from his tangle with the feds. Furthermore, the inclusion
of information about Lennon’s murder by a deranged man, and
a curiously placed clip of Yoko Ono’s statement that “they”
tried to kill Lennon, feels misleading and manipulative.
Lennon was the subject of a ridiculous and ultimately failed
prosecution at the hands of a overzealous and criminal administration.
Our current administration may, too, be overzealous and criminal
in its attempts to ferret out “enemies.” Conflating these
two stories, however, reveling in the force of Lennon’s personality,
adds little to serious conversation. Let’s hope that in 20
years we don’t have to sit through The U.S. vs. the Dixie
note: John, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing opens in
November. And you’re assigned to review it.