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The Departed

Crime Films: A Monthly Column
By Nicole Rafter

The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s most recent film, can be understood as a metaphor for America in the post-9/11 world. “It comes out of an anger that’s really strong about the way things are,” Scorsese remarked in an interview (Sight and Sound, Nov. 06 issue). While the film’s immediate interest lies in a cat-and-mouse struggle between cops and organized crime, that struggle is, as Scorsese went on to observe, “some kind of perennial war that has no foreseeable end.” Whether we interpret it as a stand-in for the conflict in Iraq or for the larger war against terrorism, the nature of the struggle suggests that the director was thinking of contexts broader than the Boston mob as he produced The Departed.

Thirty-five years ago, Francis Ford Coppola connected his film The Godfather with the political context of the United States under Nixon, observing that “I always wanted to use the Mafia as a metaphor for America.” Scorsese is doing something similar, but The Departed brings us a very different America, one in which law-enforcement and the underworld alike mirror the post-9/11 political scene.

The Departed tells the story of two undercover agents, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a police officer who penetrates an organized crime family, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a wise guy who infiltrates a police organization by becoming a cop. Because the tale is set in Boston, a city with a large Irish population, and because most of the criminals as well as the cops are Irish, this becomes a tale of a house divided. That both undercover agents are in love with the same woman (and she with them) drives home the theme of division where there should be solidarity. This is, then, the tale of a feud between blood brothers, and of torn social fabric that could have remained whole.

Mistrust pervades The Departed’s world. Everyone is lying, and no one can tell for sure what is going on or who makes the decisions. The heads of both the legitimate and illegitimate organizations obsess about loyalty and security, but they find it impossible to determine the boundaries between legality and illegality, good and evil. Similarly, mistrust and obsessions with security have characterized the Bush administration; as time passed, these concerns jumped the White House’s firewalls to spread among the populace. Americans still don’t know why Bush went to war in Iraq, or whether the results of the last two presidential elections would have been different had voting been conducted fairly. In the movie’s world as in the nation’s politics, confusion prevails over the lines between criminality and legitimacy.

In The Departed, even the boss of the criminal organization, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), has trouble figuring out who to trust. He suspects that a police mole has infiltrated his group but can’t determine who it is. And so, recalling the Bush administration’s decision to tap citizens’ phone calls, Frank decides to instead “BEGIN” his investigation by collecting his henchmen’s Social Security numbers.

In a world of mistrust and confusion, people lose track of their own identities as well as the identities of those they must work with (or vote for). Underscoring this problem, in his Sight and Sound interview Scorsese notes that in the film, “No one knows who they really are, or who anyone else is.”

Similarly, in The Departed everyone is corrupt, or suspected of being so, and in time corruption becomes almost identical with virtue. To prove himself to the bad guys, Billy has to pretend to be kicked out of the police academy; he must spend time in jail on fictitious charges and work closely with the mob boss, in effect becoming criminal while he remains a dutiful cop. Those who seem to be corrupt may really be good, just as those who seem good may in fact be corrupt. We have seen the same phenomenon in the so-called war on terrorism.

The corruption is organizational as well as personal. Within law-enforcement agencies, interagency competition generates corruption as state and local police work against one another and both try to outmaneuver the FBI. Even within the state police, corruption emerges from the competition between the undercover unit, run by a cop named Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), and the rest of the department, run by an official named Ellerby (played by Alec Baldwin at his sleazy best).

Everyone’s top priority is to keep everyone else in the dark. In The Departed, we often can’t discern the truth, just as in the broader political context, we can’t tell who leaked Valerie Palme’s undercover identity to the press or why Haliburton did not have to compete to get billion-dollar contracts to supply war efforts in Iraq. In the movie as in the post-9/11 world, confusion, suspicion, and cover-ups are the rule.

Both the cops and the crime family of The Departed use violence to unmask and silence opponents. A cop suspected of knowing too much is flung off the top of a building; the body of a cop who may or may not have been an informer is dumped in the marshy Fens; and Dignam, the chief undercover cop, sneaks into an apartment to shoot Colin when he comes home with his groceries. Such approaches, when used by police to circumvent due process requirements, echo current U.S. foreign policy, which circumvents the Geneva Accords with secret prisons and third-party torture. Additionally, in the movie as in real-life, surveillance technologies and invasions of privacy become favorite tools for undermining foes. At the end of the film, with the click of a computer mouse, Colin deletes Billy’s file from police records, erasing his identity.

Like The Godfather, The Departed is concerned with theme of family disintegration. Both Colin and Billy are quasi-orphans, and both find a substitute family of sorts in their organizations, Colin in the organized crime family run by Frank Costello and Billy in the police unit run by Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen). But both families are deeply dysfunctional. In this world of Boston crime, there are no good fathers and few good leaders, and what might have been an extended Irish family has ended up torn in two. Initially, the Bush administration stressed loyalty, trust, and speaking in one voice, but we are starting to learn that the unity of that family had been fraying for some time, with (for example) Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice feuding with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Indeed, Bush himself dumped Rumsfeld as soon as the 2006 election results became final.

The Departed is not as gripping as The Godfather, nor does it deal as dramatically with corruption and family disintegration. While both films are populated with stars, in The Godfather the stars merge with and melt into their characters, whereas in The Departed we remain more conscious of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio than the characters they play. Nonetheless, in both cases we find a crime film conducting a very serious discussion on the metaphorical level of social and political issues.


Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Her column is published on the last Tuesday of every month. Check out past columns on Babel, The History of Violence, Sex Crime Movies, Inside Man and Miami Vice and her intro.

Recent Comments

  1. [email protected]

    [“While both films are populated with stars, in The Godfather the stars merge with and melt into their characters, whereas in The Departed we remain more conscious of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio than the characters they play.”]

    In your opinion . . . right? Because the above is a comment that I do not agree with.

  2. Tyree Jaycox

    Very interesting review! I’m going to watch this movie just to make the comparison myself (was going to anyway but now I just have to!).

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