Bright Lights Film Journal

“What Are Kingdoms but Gangs of Criminals?” The Politics of The Departed

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” – Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

I

Opposition to the Iraq War reached its height in Hollywood in 2007 with the release of Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition, and In the Valley of Elah. But it may be that the most profound film criticism of the war in Iraq and of American interventionism more generally appeared a year earlier. The Departed (2006), directed by Martin Scorsese and written by William Monahan, is a gangster film that never mentions Iraq. But its relevance to the war is unmistakable. The Departed, it seems to me, is an extended criticism of the idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that America is uniquely virtuous among the nations of the world, even endowed with a providential mission, which obligates it to “ending tyranny in our world” (George W. Bush quoted in Bacevich, 18). It is particularly appropriate that The Departed is set in Boston, for it was in leading the first Puritans to New England in 1630 that John Winthrop invoked the central image of American exceptionalism — “a city upon a hill [with] the eyes of all people upon us” (Winthrop).

Of course, American exceptionalism has had its detractors, and it is in this tradition of social criticism that I think The Departed should be placed. After the disaster of the Vietnam War, the distinguished historian William McNeill despaired over this “public myth” since neither the Puritan vision of an America that was “especially pleasing to God” nor the “universalistic legal moralism associated with Woodrow Wilson” recognized the limits to our national power that was necessary to the post Vietnam world (McNeill, 11). And more recently, Joyce Carol Oates, in response to the Iraq War, has written, “how heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the 21st century, of the American Idea . . . Our unexamined belief in American exceptionalism has allowed us to imagine ourselves above anything so constrictive as international law. American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world’s resources a healthy exercise of capitalism and free trade” (Oates, 22).

But criticisms of any national exceptionalism, and of the “sanctimomy” and “self-adulation” that power and empire always bring (Bacevich, 6-7), have a very long history, beginning with St. Augustine in his City Of God, which was written during the fall of the Roman Empire. Augustine recounts a conversation between Alexander the Great and a pirate he had captured. According to Augustine, “Indeed, that was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The King had asked the fellow ‘What is your idea in infesting the sea?’ And the pirate answered with uninhibited insolence, ‘The same as yours in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.'” Augustine concluded (using a line that perfectly captures the critical edge of so many gangster films, especially The Departed), “What are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? For what are criminal gangs, but petty kingdoms” (City of God, 139)?

Empires don’t want to think of themselves as based only on their use of force and their distribution of booty, that is, as “gangs of criminals.” They want to think of themselves as morally deserving of their power, as better and more just than the world they dominate. But the pirate who said these words to Alexander didn’t see it that way. Nor did Augustine see the Roman Empire as morally deserving, which is, of course, why he told the story. Nor did Scorsese’s The Departed, it seems to me, accept America’s moral superiority during its imperial adventure in Iraq.

Beginning this discussion with Augustine is appropriate first because it situates Scorcese within “the drama of Catholicism” (Christie, 3) and second because it locates the heart of that drama in sin and selfishness. What Augustine, and many who have followed him, insist upon and what American exceptionalism denies is the selfishness of all people and the need for laws and institutions to constrain that selfishness. Nations, like individuals, that have so much power they can grab whatever they want are bound to act badly. In fact, if Reinhold Niebuhr (another theologian deeply influenced by Augustine) is right, “Nations are more consistently egoistic than individuals” (Niebuhr, 182).

The politics of The Departed is established by its identification of the state, represented as the Massachusetts State Police, with the criminal gang of Frank Costello. Scorsese is not breaking new ground in using the gangster movie this way. By urging audiences to see the politically and economically powerful as morally similar to greedy and violent gangsters, gangster films have long been used to criticize society. Scorsese himself has said that his film Casino (1995) likened the mob in Las Vegas to America, and was meant to comment on the unrestrained pursuit of drugs, sex, and money he saw among the rich and powerful in America in the 1980s (Emery). And in two interviews, he attributed his willingness to stick with The Departed through preproduction difficulties to “an anger . . . about the world and about the way our leaders are acting” (Pilkington; Christie 14). We can also note that the screenwriter, William Monahan, preceded his work on The Departed with Kingdom of Heaven and followed The Departed with Body of Lies, both of which were critical of Western intervention in the Middle East.

II

The Departed is based on a 2002 Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs. Both films have the same basic plot — just as the police have placed a mole deep in the organization of the gang, the gang has placed a mole in the police. This plot inevitably raises the question of whether the state and the gang are morally equivalent. Do their similar methods suggest deeper similarities? Twice, Infernal Affairs uses a quotation from the 18th-century Scottish poet Thomas Campbell, “What millions died — that Caesar might be great,” that could have opened up a critical view of state power. But both times the callous Caesar referred to in the film is the gang leader, not the leader of a state organization. Early in the film, the phrase is uttered self-importantly by the gang leader himself, Boss Sam, suggesting he sees himself as the ruler of a small kingdom. Late in the film, he is shot by his most successful mole, Lau, who speaks this phrase again, though sarcastically. Boss Sam is not Caesar, Lau implies by his sarcasm, and Lau will not die for him.

In contrast, the leader of the police, Superintendent Wong, a legitimate representative of Caesar, is presented sympathetically and without Boss Sam’s self-importance. His death is treated by the camera shots that linger over his dead body and the music that plays as a real tragedy. Just before his death he had promised Kan, the police mole in the gang, that he would take him off his undercover assignment, that is, that Kan would not have to die for Caesar. As it turns out, Kan is killed, but Lau, the criminal mole, is not. Unfortunately, Lau realizes too late that though he has escaped death, the rest of his guilty and dishonorable life will be one of self-inflicted suffering and punishment. Better if he had died an honorable death like Kan’s, in service to a legitimate state. Infernal Affairs, then, affirms the state’s moral authority. Boss Sam and his criminal gang are presented as pretenders to state power and a threat to its legitimacy.

III

Though The Departed borrows the plot and many of the scenes of Infernal Affairs, I think Scorsese’s film reaches just the opposite conclusion about the moral authority of state power. As William Monahan has insisted, The Departed “is an adaptation, not a remake” (McCallum, 29). It isn’t long into The Departed that the criminal mole, Colin Sullivan (played by Matt Damon), recently graduated from the State Police Academy, rents an apartment with a view of the glittering gold dome of the Massachusetts State House from the windows in the living room. Time and again the film returns to this view of the State House. Does the gold dome represent the majesty of the state and its legitimate power? Overshadowing the apartment of a criminal, does it stand in silent rebuke of his activities? Whatever else, the visual presence of the dome keeps the relation between the gang and the state alive in the minds of the audience.

At the very end of the film, Scorsese makes his view of the gold dome clear and his view of state power explicit. As the last man standing after Frank Costello (the gangland boss played by Jack Nicholson), Captain Queenan (the leader of the state police unit played by Martin Sheen)), and Billy Costigan (the police mole in the gang played by Leonardo de Caprio) have been killed, Colin Sullivan returns to his apartment from grocery shopping. Inside his apartment stands Dignam (played by Mark Wahlberg), the profane and violent cop who had been fired from the state police. No longer representing the state, he enacts some rough justice by putting a shot through Colin’s head. The camera pans to the window and the State House dome behind it, but in this final shot with the gold dome in the background, a rat crawls across a balcony guard rail in the foreground. If the camera asks every time the gold dome of the State House is shown, what is this building and what does it represent, the rat answers the question — the State House is the home of deceit, greed, and violence.

The depth of Scorsese’s disillusionment with government is apparent by comparing, as I am sure we are meant to, his use of the Massachusetts State House with the role played by the U.S. Capitol building in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Consider just two examples from that film. When Jeff Smith first arrives in Washington, he sees the Capitol Dome through a window of the train station. So powerful is its presence that it seems to pull him away from the cynical politicians who surround him on his arrival and draw him to Washington’s national monuments and the virtue they represent. Later, when he is trying to draft the bill that will establish his boys’ camp, he looks to the Dome for inspiration, hoping the freedom it represents “comes to life for every boy in the land.” In The Departed the state is not identified by its ideals but by the violence and corruption of the people who wield its power.

Of course, Scorsese does not save this conclusion for just the last scene. Virtually every scene in the film strips the State Police of their moral superiority or in some other way demonstrates the moral equivalence of the police and the Costello gang. The State Police are even denied the legitimacy that would have resulted from killing the criminals. Colin, the criminal mole, is killed by the discredited Dignam, while the leader of the gang, Frank Costello, is killed by Colin, one of his own. Perhaps the most devastating indictment of the state comes when we learn that Costello (like the real-life Boston criminal Whitey Bulger, clearly a model for the Costello character), who is as evil a gangster as the movies have ever presented, has been protected by the FBI as an informer. With the knowledge that the state had made a deal with and protected a murderer (as the U.S, government did with Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s), we know that the state has lost its moral bearings. Costello, a rat himself, knew what he was doing when he offhandedly used a napkin to sketch the State House surrounded by rats. It is not difficult to accept his judgment that, “Cops or criminals, what’s the difference?” This line, it should be noted, is given special visual significance in the film. Until it is said by Costello, his face had been kept in the shadows.

Just as the police can appear criminal, Costello can present himself as patriotic. In one of the most important scenes, Costello and his gang are engaged in selling microchips to representatives of the Chinese government. Two or three times during the negotiations he thunders with great pride, “In this country,” as he criticizes their behavior and insists they do things the American way. And he is specific about what constitutes the American way. He instructs the Chinese in capitalist business practice, “What we generally do in this country, is one guy brings the item, the other guy pays him. No tickee, no laundry.” After the transaction has been completed, Costello arranges for the Chinese to escape by boat. “They didn’t think we had a navy,” he says. Later in the film, Costello explicitly likens himself to a head of state when he describes his burdens with “Heavy lies the crown.” In that same conversation, Costello, the head of a petty kingdom, admitted, “A lot of people had to die for me to be me.” How many more must die, the film invites us to ask, so that the leaders of great powers can hold their positions?

Not surprisingly, the entire transaction with the Chinese is under surveillance by the state police. At a moment when it seems that the police may actually catch Costello because of cell phone surveillance, a member of their task force, Ellerby (played by Alec Baldwin), loudly proclaims that he loves the Patriot Act. But knowing what we do about the corruption of the state police and the expanded power the Patriot Act gives them, it is difficult for the audience to be as enthusiastic.

The emotional center of the film is in the struggle of the two moles or rats to keep their sanity as they lead double lives. Both become increasingly desperate and unhinged as the organizations they have infiltrated become suspicious. Yet neither can escape as their bosses refuse to let them quit. First in watching these two young men buckle under the pressure of their situations and then in watching their inevitable deaths, we see the immorality of both the state police and the gang in their willingness to sacrifice young men to win their war. Never are we allowed to be less sympathetic to Matt Damon’s character because he works for Costello and never do we overlook the damage done to DiCaprio’s in the name of police heroism. We see them both as fully human, each manipulated by institutions for their own ends.

The difference between Infernal Affairs and The Departed is well illustrated in the funerals received by Kan and Billy, the two young police officers who infiltrate the gangs. The funeral for Kan is a sincere expression of gratitude by those who have gathered to honor him. But since Billy had spoken contemptuously of a police funeral shortly before his death (“parade and bagpipes and bullshit”) and since by the time in the film he is killed we are well aware of the corruption of the police, it is impossible to experience his funeral except as a sham, a phony expression of grief by a corrupt organization over a pointless death.

While Infernal Affairs does not delve into the background of its moles, The Departed makes us aware of the dysfunctional families that raised Colin and Billy. Both are children of Boston’s Irish immigrant community, and each represents one side of the dilemma of identity immigrants are faced with — to stay loyal to the local ethnic community, as Colin does, or to transfer their loyalty to the national community, the path followed by Billy. Scorsese has explored this dilemma many times before in his films. In The Departed, neither commitment, to the police or the criminals, works out well.

Both Colin and Billy also were raised in families without fathers, which allow them to be exploited by their surrogate fathers, Costello and Queenan. Costello, for example, gives Colin presents, as a father would, and has Colin call him “Dad” in their many cell phone conversations. Just before Colin is about to shoot Costello, Costello tries one more time to present himself as a father figure. But this only increases Colin’s anger as he is now well aware that Costello would turn him over to the FBI if it would serve his interests.

When an obviously distraught Billy shows up at Queenan’s house wanting to quit, Queenan invites Billy into his house and offers him dinner amidst the pictures of his happy family, obviously playing on Billy’s desire for a father and a family of his own. At the start of the film, Queenan tries to convince Billy to go undercover by imploring him to “Do it for me.” And later, confronted with Billy’s desire to get out, with an astute sense of Billy’s emotional needs, Queenan asks him to “Hang tough for me.” If the police did nothing else, their cynical exploitation of Billy and refusal to let him quit mark them as little better than Costello. Queenan may be the most decent man in the film, and in the end he does confront Costello’s thugs so that Billy has time to escape, but his apparent concern for Billy is overwhelmed by the requirements of the institution he works for. Queenan’s death is brutal; he is thrown off the top of a building after being beaten. And for the only time in the film, slow motion is used to draw out the fall so that we register the horror of his death. But Queenan’s role as a policeman was to play the good cop to Dignam’s bad cop, which he did. It required him to play on Billy’s desire for a father, which he did. And it meant that he always found the best emotional ploy to keep Billy on the job. His good intentions, in other words, came to nothing.

The film’s sense that Billy and Colin are equally victims is furthered by their falling in love with the same woman, Madolyn (played by Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist, and her falling in love with them. Of course, that she is having an affair with Billy while living with Colin continues the theme of duplicity even in this potentially redemptive relationship. But as we see them both through her eyes and as she finds the humanity in both, so does the audience. But visits with Madolyn have no impact on the ability of Colin or Billy to understand the way they have been used. But both moles remain loyal to their “fathers,” who only use them in return. In fact, Madolyn may have her own demons. Brought up in a family with an abusive and alcoholic father, she seems drawn to violent men. That she treats both violent police officers and violent criminals further suggests similarities between all who resort to violence.

The state (police) chews up young men, just as Costello’s gang does. Neither the love of Madolyn nor the therapy she provides can save Colin or Billy from their suffering and death. But in Irish Boston there was always the power of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the Church is also presented as corrupt. After eating lunch with Billy, Costello stops by a table occupied by an older priest, a young priest, and a nun. His comments to the older priest about his pederasty and to the younger priest about the sexual history of the nun suggest the church itself is beyond redemption.

IV

The most commented-upon performance in the film is Jack Nicholson’s spectacular portrayal of Frank Costello. The Costello character could have been written and performed as Boss Sam in Infernal Affairs, that is, as merely a ruthless, intelligent thug. But there is nothing in Sam’s personality that attracts us. As a result, he is never “what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become,” to quote Robert Warshow’s famous analysis of the gangster in American film (Warshow, 86). But if an American audience is to be implicated in the bloody destruction caused by the American empire, it needs to be fascinated as well as repelled by the leader of this “little kingdom.” What is there in Costello’s insanity that allows him to so dominate the screen? I don’t believe that audiences are simply horrified by him. Instead, he is presented as so clever, so confident, and so powerful that he can take whatever he wants — sex, money, or revenge. We can’t take our eyes off of him. He acts with impunity, outside the laws and norms of human society, as we would all like to be able to act, as the world’s only superpower may have thought it could act.

Consider the most famous line in the film, spoken by Costello as the film begins, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” There is only pridefulness in wanting to bend the entire world to one’s own purposes. The problem is that the world is full of other people (and nations) and that control can only come by denying these others their own histories and lives and goals. Costello treats everyone he meets as a means or obstacle to his own ends, much as an empire treats other nations as simply a means to the empire’s security or prosperity. Costello is the answer to a question Scorsese has asked himself before, “What becomes of humans [and we might add nations] without limits?” (Emery).

But Frank’s desire to control his environment only gradually comes to be seen as evil. At first, it is part of a monologue that seems quintessentially American. That is, it is an expression of another pillar of the American ideal — equality of opportunity. Frank criticizes the Church for wanting to keep people in their place, when in fact, “When you decide to be something, you can be it.” Of course, this requires self reliance and enterprise. As Frank says, “No one gives it to you, you have to take it.” The implication is stated by Costello’s right-hand man, French, “This is America, if you don’t make money, you are a fucking douchebag.”

At one point, Billy reminds Frank that he doesn’t need the money he continues to steal. Frank acknowledges with some contempt that he hasn’t needed money since the third grade and adds that he doesn’t need women, either. But he likes them, he says, which is justification enough. Anyone who knows Augustine’s Confessions will be immediately reminded of one of his most famous stories. When Augustine was young he stole some pears from an orchard, “not because I was driven to it by any need . . . but by a glut of evil doing. For I stole a thing of which I had plenty of my own and of much better quality” (Confessions, 69-70). This is the sin that nations as well as individuals share — the desire to take whatever they want, whatever the rules, just because it’s possible.

V

The Departed is an extremely profane and violent film. At one point Costello, with blood all over his arms and shirt, casually walks up to Billy, who is sitting at the bar frequented by the gang, exchanges a few pleasantries, and walks way. To the back room? To torture (or harshly interrogate) someone? No explanation is ever given. There isn’t any need to provide more gory examples, except to note that the abusive language and violent acts characterize both the police and the Costello gang and certainly underscore Costello’s sense, which we come to share, that little separates the two groups. In Scorsese’s world almost everyone is attracted to violence. There is a moment in his film Goodfellas (1990) when the wife of a mob member is handed a bloody gun and told to hide it. Instead of running for her life, as she knows she should, she hides the gun. “All my friends would have run if their husbands had given them a bloody gun to hide, but I didn’t. The truth is I was turned on by it.” Scorsese creates films for people (let’s call them Americans) who find violence attractive. He does not try to cure them of that attraction by preaching against it. Instead, he uses violence to draw people into his films and then shows them in graphic detail the consequences of violence. Scorsese has said that violence is “ugly, bad, wrong” (Emery). Romanticized violence or sanitized violence cannot convey this judgment, and as a result would be dishonest and ineffective. Only if the splattered blood and painful deaths are pushed in the faces of the audience is there a chance violence might lose its attraction. By the end of The Departed, both moles, both of their bosses, and countless others have died violent, ugly deaths.

Since film has played such an important role in furthering the idea that violence can be regenerative or redemptive, a number of filmmakers, dating back to Arthur Penn’s direction of Bonnie and Clyde (1968), have taken it upon themselves to counter this attitude. Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch (1969), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) are three extraordinary examples of the violent antiviolence film. I think Scorsese would agree with Peckinpah that, “To negate violence, it must be shown for what it is, a horrifying, brutalizing, destructive, ingrained part of humanity” (Prince, 179). While The Departed joins this group of distinguished films, it also had a more specific task, I think. To release a film in 2006 that worked so hard to equate a violent criminal leader with a political leader can certainly be taken as a comment on the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

VI

And like the position America found itself in in Iraq in 2006, this film is very bleak. Consider a quick comparison with a film Scorsese has always loved, On the Waterfront (1954), which is also about a violent gang led by a vicious boss that has been infiltrated, in a sense, by one of its members. In that film the violence of the gang is contrasted with the peaceful investigative methods of the state in the form of the Waterfront Crime Commission. Terry’s redemption comes when he appears before the Commission “to get his rights.” His decision is made under the influence of his girlfriend and because of the example of a courageous priest. The state, the family, and the Church oppose the corruption of the gang and provide Terry with the possibility of moral redemption.

In The Departed there is no redemption, every institution is implicated in the sins of the empire. In this attitude, it is strikingly similar to The Godfather (1972), another gangster film produced during an unpopular war that denied there were moral differences between the Corleone family and the business and political elites implicated in that war. This point was made most famously in the conversation between Michael and Kay, in which her attempt to distinguish the mob from senators and presidents on the ground that politicians do not kill people as the mob does, is met with Michael’s comment that she is being naïve. But, at least at the start of The Godfather, when the focus was on Vito, the extended family of the Corleones was characterized by love and loyalty. If Vito didn’t want to dance at the end of a string held by someone else, it was in part so that he could protect and care for his family. Frank Costello’s desire to control his environment is as strong as Vito Corleone’s, but Costello has no family to care for, treats women with contempt, uses and is ultimately killed by the one person who calls him Dad, and is presented as never using his power for more than his own pleasure. The darkest line in The Departed is given to French, who concludes at one point that this is “a nation of fucking rats.”

The Departed seems to me to be an extraordinary work of art that embodies the political realism that is desperately needed to guard against the hubris of empire. It reminds all who see it that states, like individuals, must acknowledge their own selfishness and their need for laws, norms, and limits. It calls into question American exceptionalism and any national narrative based on it. Who can look at a State House or Capital Dome with the same naiveté Jeff Smith did? That rat is not easily forgotten.

Works Cited

Augustine. City of God. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

Augustine. Confessions. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Bacevich, Andrew. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008.

Campbell, Thomas. “The Pleasures of Hope, Part II.” 1799.

Christie, Ian. “Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure.” Sight and Sound 16. 11. November 2006: 14-17.

Emery, Robert J. The Directors: The Films of Martin Scorsese. New York: Fox Lorber CentreStage: Winstar TV & Video, 2000.

Kelley, Mary Pat. Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

McCallum, Kate. “The Making of The Departed.” Script, November/December 2006, 29.

McNeill, William H. “The Care and Repair of Public Myth.” Foreign Affairs 61.2. 1983 1-13.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. New York: Scribner’s and Sons, 1944.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Human Idea.” The Atlantic November 2007: 22-23.

Pilkington, Ed. “A History of Violence.” The Guardian October 6, 2006.

Prince, Stephen. Screening Violence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Thompson, David and Christie, Ian (eds), Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.

Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Winthrop, John. “Model of Christian Charity.” 1630.