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Help me out here: (l-r) DiCaprio and Sheen in The Departed.

Reason for Being

 By Shawn Stone

The Departed

Directed 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.

Who Put All That Shit in Your Head?

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Directed 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 Chicks.

—John Rodat

Editor’s note: John, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing opens in November. And you’re assigned to review it.


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