The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture 2006 was The Departed, a "cops and mobsters" movie directed by Martin Scorsese, the classic director of such films as Taxi Driver, who won Best Director (an award he had been always been denied before this). Over the years, Best Picture winners have tended to portray deep themes and troubles with America and the world, while still being very entertaining. The Departed is no exception to this general rule, as it manages to convey a number of themes, subtexts, and issues in our society, including personal subject matter such as identity, guilt, fear, and repression along with more broad societal themes such as corruption and incompetence in higher levels, as well as the duality between cops and criminals. At the same time, it still is a thriller that's incredibly fun to watch.
In the film, Jack Nicholson plays an Irish American Mob Boss in Boston who the Massachusetts State Police are attempting to apprehend. In order to do this, they manage to get an undercover cop (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) into the highest levels of his organization. However, at the same time, the mobster has managed to get one of his own men (Matt Damon) into the highest levels of the State Police to act as his mole. The movie works as a classic Scorsese mob thriller, using the drama of the two spies attempting to discover each others identities to create crackling tension.
The movie has a number of different themes and subtexts; one important one is the theme of identity. Both infiltrators are torn between their respective loyalties to the mob and to the police department. The Matt Damon character, Colin Sullivan, is forced to pretend to be a good guy during the day, while reporting to Costello at night. He also has to hide his true identity from every cop in the State Police, including many that he personally likes. What's more, he has a burning ambition to climb the rungs of society as high as he can go. This ambition is symbolized by the Gold Dome of the Massachusetts State House, which he can see from the window of his apartment. It is due in large part to this ambition, and his vast intelligence, that he climbs as far as he does in the State Police. He has to be aware of the fact that he can never climb that high in the ranks and still be closely connected with Costello. He has a respect for the institution of law enforcement that seems almost real, and in a way, probably is. For example, at one point in the film, he says he will recommend a character for the Medal of Merit (sort of like the Medal of Honor for police) and seems surprised when the character has no desire for it. After the said character dies, he posthumously recommends him for the Medal of Merit, showing that he respects the medal even more, and not just as a kiss up thing.
The respect that Sullivan has for the police is conversely lacking in the Dicaprio character- the guy who is an actual cop. At one point, he pronounces that "there is no one more full of shit than a cop" and says most cops "signed up to use their weapons", suggesting that he has become disillusioned with the institution of policemen that he has joined and is working for. Billy Costigan (Dicaprio-the undercover cop) is forced to pretend to be a violent person who lives only for money. He has to carry out all of the orders of Costello and his lieutenant, Mr. French, including assisting French in anything he does, such as Murder, assault and battery, and torture. If Costigan falls out of playing the character of the mobster, he will be viciously killed. This causes him to undergo enormous stress and fear, resulting in an addiction to drugs such as Valium and Oxycontin, and possibly more blatantly illegal drugs as well (an addiction that may have started with an injury). He is angry at the system that forces him to stay in such an untenable position, and that never seems to arrest Costello, despite the fact that Costigan has watched him and his henchmen commit murders and engage in all manner of illegal activities.
The contrast between the principal "good guy" and "bad guy" of this film is a very telling one. Sullivan, the bad guy, is an outwardly great, likable cop, who impresses everyone on the force, is thus promoted quickly, and hands out breaks to other deserving cops. He, in short, is the seemingly perfect President of the U.S. In the meantime, the Costigan character is a violent man who is taking drugs, brutally assaulting and shooting people for next to no reason at all, has spent time in prison, assaults his own supervisor out of pure rage, and is on the edge of mental breakdown—yet he is the real hero of the movie, while Sullivan remains the manipulative bastard who is constantly succeeding.
This is another theme of the film- the rotten system that allows such rotten bastards to rise while constantly hurting good people like Costigan. The character played by Alec Baldwin is largely a representative of this system, a strait stereotypical Republican with outwardly mainstream opinions who holds them for cynical, self serving reasons; a man who never suspects Sullivan and in fact frequently praises him, while unknowingly undermining the work that the Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg characters are attempting to do: namely, run their snitches (such as Costigan) so they can catch Costello. Other members of the government and police are also actively helping Costello for various reasons. The whole movie seems to take place in a fog of deception, borderline corruption and/or incompetence, more sharply shown by the three good characters (namely the Dicaprio and Wahlberg/ Sheen characters). This mirrors the world we live in, which has the same kind of idiots and jerks in Government who constantly screw up and are responsible for such catastrophes as the Iraq War and the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as the constant scandal and deception that seem to have engulfed Washington in ever increasing amounts.
Though I do not want to reveal the ending, or any of the various plot twists, suffice it to say that this is one of the most frequently surprising, darkly hilarious, brutally violent and theme deep films of the last few years. It is more than worth the attention of any thinking American, or any American who just likes to watch criminals plot and kill people. As a matter of fact, one of the movies many strengths is that it works on both levels- as great entertainment and thought provoking drama.