“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
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).
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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