The single worst line of dialogue in all of movies can be found in the 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a newspaper editor says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I hate the line for its smugly cynical attitude, its pseudo cleverness, and its hollow knowingness, but above all I hate it because it’s wrong. The facts are always more interesting than the legend. Always.
That’s why the more I learn about the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the less interested I am in actually watching it. That’s despite — or because of — the fact that I’m fascinated by the role played by New Jersey and Atlantic City during Prohibition, the phenomenon of the urban political boss, and the career of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who reigned over Atlantic City during its hooch-soaked heyday. I’ve also written a book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, in which one of the key players is Frank Hague, Nucky’s contemporary and the only man qualified to best him for the title of Greatest Political Boss. All of which is to say I know enough about the subject to be interested in seeing Boardwalk Empire, and interested enough in the subject to know I’m going to be disappointed by what I see.
First of all, casting Steve Buscemi as the strapping Nucky Johnson (renamed “Nucky Thompson” in the show) is miscasting on the scale of . . . jeez, I can hardly think of a comparison. How about casting Pee-wee Herman as Jake LaMotta? How about hiring a weasel to play a bear? Buscemi’s a fine actor, but Nucky is not his role. As for Nucky himself, he wasn’t the type to have competitors machine-gunned or sent out for a swim with Chicago galoshes. If Nucky took a dislike to somebody, he would make life so difficult for that person that the offending party would haul stakes and roll out of town.
Second, the recent episode in which Hague drops in on Nucky makes it pretty clear the show is really only interested in reshuffling stereotypes about political bosses, rather than diving into the messy, contradictory, fascinating reality. The episode shows Hague (at left) smoking a stogie and knocking back bootleg hooch while a tootsie serenades him on the ukelele, preliminary to a round of tomcatting under Nucky’s genial sponsorship. This is ridiculous: Hague was a teetotaler, a lifelong hypochondriac who never smoked and frowned upon sexual vice. (Operatives in his Hudson County machine were expected to be stable family men.) He opposed Prohibition and was happy to let bootleggers pay to operate within his jurisdiction, but in his personal life Hague was a good Catholic boy.
Turning Frank Hague into a stereotypical boss is not only lazy, it makes for lax drama. How much more interesting to show this abstemious dictator willing to deal with vice-sodden gangsters, but all the while quietly judging them and making sure they paid dearly for their operations. Hague and Nucky, both pragmatists from opposing political parties, worked together on a few occasions, notably to screw over one of Hague’s longtime political foes in a gubernatorial race. I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire should traffick in the minutiae of New Jersey politics, but when I hear one of the lines its gives to Hague — “I’m a simple man. All I need is a bed, the love of a good woman, and an envelope about so thick” — it’s pretty clear the show is interested in Hollywood notions of political bosses rather than the real thing.
It’s an old story: Filmmakers are drawn to a historical subject because it seems tailor-made for a film treatment, but getting the film made involves so much fictionalization that the end result bears little relation to its inspiration. I’ve long thought that the purest fiction in movies is always accompanied by the words “Based on a true story,” and it looks like Boardwalk Empire follows that tradition to the letter.