“New York City was basically a character in the movie!” This is something you may have heard actors, directors, or anyone else involved in a movie taking place in NYC, say during its promotional tour. It’s annoying. It’s a cliché. It hardly means anything. Yet we know what they mean when they say it: this movie takes place in New York and has that kind of classic “New York” feel to it. The buildings! The people! The taxis! The (ugh) energy! All of these tropes have been played out time and time again, but they seem to keep working on people because it fits the image that New York City has purported onto society. Los Angeles has done the same thing with their own image: if New York is the cool, grounded city, where regular folks are grinding away to “make it,” then LA is the glamourous city with ritzy parties, populated by movie stars and producers, and fancy premiers, where the champagne never stops flowing.
By all accounts, both of these cities are normal-ass places to live. There are rich people, there are poor people; there are people who love it and people who hate it; there are people who live there because there are lots of jobs and there are people who are obnoxiously proud of living there or having been raised there. The fabricated images we have of these cities mostly comes from how they’ve been portrayed in movies and television and act as an idealized version of themselves, filled with meaningless platitudes about what it means to live there: “Come to New York! If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!”
It makes sense that a city would want to project an idealized fantasy of what life there is like, so that its residents can feel good about being from a “cool” city where all the “cool” people live, when in reality, they’re just places people live; nothing more, nothing less. All this is to say that these two cities aren’t even the most grating when it comes to portraying a falsified image of what life is like in your city. The city whose popular media image induces the hardest eye-rolls goes, without a doubt, to Boston.
By all accounts, Boston is no different from any other city in America. It too has poor neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, plenty of normal people going about their day, some crime issues and much more. Just a whole bunch of stuff you would find anywhere else. But instead of opting for the more conventional image of “look how great this city is” that NYC and LA bludgeon the world with, Boston seems to have leaned its image into the idea that it’s a dangerous place to live, full of crime and that only the hardened natives of the city could ever handle a place like that.
It’s a bizarre act of self-mythologizing that seems to have mostly worked on the public through popular media. When people think of tough, dangerous, crime-ridden cities, they probably think of Detroit or Oakland, but also often include Boston, based on what they’ve learned from extremely popular movies like “The Town,” “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Departed.” In reality, Boston doesn’t even rank in most top ten lists of the most dangerous cities in America, based on the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
So if Boston isn’t actually all that dangerous (at least not more so than most other cities), then why are the films that take place there (often written, directed or starring Boston natives) so hellbent on making the world think it’s an unpleasant place to live? Even the movies that aren’t focused on violent crime, still linger on a general ambiance of morosity, like the broken-family tropes and drug addiction scenes in “The Fighter,” the brooding, working-class elements of “Good Will Hunting,” and just the overwhelming and unrelenting sadness of “Manchester By The Sea.” For every “Fever Pitch” or “Ted,” there are five movies about Whitey Bulger, the mob or crooked cops.
What we seem to have here is an entire city experiencing a major bout of Napoleon Complex. Boston seems to think, for some reason, that it’s some kind of societal underdog and that many people don’t think of Boston as a “cool” place to live or visit on the same level as New York, LA or even Chicago, it has instead decided to pretend it’s proud to be less cool, and that not just anybody could handle living on its mean streets, full of criminals and honest-working tough guys who work with their hands. “Whatevah, you little sissies from LA could nevah handle these streets anyway. Why don’t you go back to your fahkin’ juice shops and your vegan restaurants while we pave our streets with our bare hands in the dead of wintah without any coats on. Fahk you.”
The opening text in Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (which is, by all means, a great, thrilling crime movie) actually quotes an anonymous man saying:
This is the exact kind of self-mythologizing that Boston filmmakers seem to salivate over: this idea that their city is a terrible place to live, but also that its residents are proud of how awful it is there. “The Town” actually refers to Charlestown as the “bank robbery capital” of America, a superlative that has been heavily contested by its own residents.
So perhaps this isn’t the city of Boston with Napoleon Complex. Perhaps it’s actually the quiet self-mythologizing desires of a group of actors, directors, writers and producers from Boston that want to heavily imply how tough and street smart they are because of their Boston upbringing, without ever having to actually prove it. Matt Damon wrote “Good Will Hunting” about a genius boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Boston and despite actually being raised in Cambridge, MA, he probably wouldn’t mind if you just assumed he actually was a tough guy from a poor neighborhood in Beantown like his titular character.
I would never claim I’ve spent lots of time in Boston but I can tell you from the several visits I have taken there, that the city I’ve experienced could not be any more different from the city I see over and over again in movies. That’s not to say that my limited time spent there has allowed me to gather the “full” Boston experience but when someone visits New York or LA, even once, they’re bound to feel at least a few real-life traces of the fantasy that those cities project in popular culture.
If it were just one or two or even three movies that have visualized Boston in such a bleak palette, it wouldn’t be something worth noticing but when at least 15 mainstream films in the last 25 years have all made a specific point to see it as such, one can’t help but scratch their head and ask why. Of course there are stories that merit this kind of tone, such as real-life events like “Spotlight” and “Patriots Day,” but why does a fictional, crime thriller like “The Equalizer” and it’s even grittier sequel need to take place in Boston, especially when it’s based on an 80’s TV show that took place in New York City? Why make the specific choice to move it to Boston? One practical reason could be that it’s cheaper to film in Boston than New York and while that’s true, they also could have chosen any other city in America. Why can’t “The Equalizer” kill faceless thugs with a nail gun in Minneapolis? The reason is likely that there is an unspoken, yet generally accepted understanding that Boston is filled with crime and that it’s easy to swallow the idea that Denzel Washington needs to pulverize every generically evil person living there.
There’s a chance that it wasn’t always destined to be this way. Perhaps after the unexpected, smashing success of “Good Will Hunting” in the late 90’s, Hollywood immediately started looking into more scripts about crime and poverty in the Boston area; if it worked once, why wouldn’t it work again? If audiences kept lining up to see these movies and they kept getting showered with awards each year, why would they stop making them?
Academy Awards Given to Recent “Boston” Movies
Good Will Hunting – Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor
Mystic River – Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor
The Departed – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay
The Fighter – Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor
Spotlight – Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay
Manchester By The Sea – Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay
The issue for me always comes back to the general attitude of the Bostonians. Taking a look at a bloated movie like “Live By Night,” about Prohibition-era Boston, director and star, Ben Affleck, plays Joe Coughlin, a character who can only be described as “a badass war vet, who wears dope clothes, and doesn’t mind killing people in his way.” As you can guess, Coughlin gets caught up in the gritty, yet badass world of illegally distributing alcohol, even though his father is a POLICE CAPTAIN. It really just screams like the most ideal character a Boston actor would want to play: a badass dude who finds himself deep in the world of crime. It makes sense that Affleck would salivate over a role like that… hey let’s check to see who wrote the screenplay and dreamed up such a perfect Boston character: Ben Affleck.
As if that couldn’t be more on the nose for how Bostonians seem to idealize themselves and how tough their city is but how damn proud they are of that fact, the opening monologue delivered by Casey Affleck in “Gone Baby Gone,” a movie about a kidnapping in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, literally just spells it out for the viewers, just so that there are no misunderstandings:
I always believed it was the things you don’t choose who make you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life. Most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young I asked my priest, how can you get to Heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children, “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”
Cutting through the gelastic pretention of that monologue, you’re essentially left with the same thesis of “people from Boston are cool and proud because this city is hard to live in. Fahk you; you just don’t understand.”
Maybe this just all seems like a fantasy that’s been carried out by Ben Affleck with some help from his brother, Casey and old pal, Damon, but the attitude has been purported in plenty of other popular films as well. Perhaps all of this traces back to the obsession over “Whitey” Bulger and his crime ring in the south of Boston. His Irish mob was put on screen in attempted detail in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” (a movie that wants to glorify him so badly without being accused of doing so that it essentially just kind of whispers to the audience, “pretty cool dude, huh?”) and more famously in a highly fictionalized version in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”
Even thinking about “The Departed” makes me a little uneasy, and not just because I can visualize frat boys still going nuts over the opening riff of the Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up to Boston” in 2019, but because this movie is likely the biggest perpetrator of Hollywood pushing the false narrative that Boston is, above all else, a tough-as-nails place to live. Where movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone,” or “The Fighter,” attempt to approach the gritty Boston ambiance with some nuance (and they’re all better movies for it), “The Departed” uses it as its cool selling point; an entire movie that centers around the idea that you should watch it because it’s “cool,” and it’s “cool” because it’s about crime in Boston.
While “The Departed” could have taken some time to apply some realism to the situation it placed itself in or even go a step further and try to deconstruct the myth, it instead turns Boston into a crime-fantasy theme park, where it’s common for people in bars to horrifically maim each other over nothing, police officers to beat the shit out of each other on a regular basis and half a dozen people can murder each other without there being any real follow-up from law enforcement, because hey… that’s just Boston for ya. There is literally a full scene in this movie where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character cuts up someone’s face with a coat rack for a few minutes and it hardly matters at all. Jack Nicholson’s cringeworthy opening monologue essentially states that the only life choices for the citizens of Boston to make are whether to be a cop or a criminal…
This movie went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s stunning to see such a glaringly pulpy final product masquerading as something of grand intellect from one of cinema’s most celebrated directors, but I suppose the conversation surrounding Scorsese’s loss of nuance over the years, causing his movies to celebrate the thing they set out to critique, is a conversation for another day. The point is that millions of people saw it, then saw that it was rewarded by the Academy as a stunning achievement in filmmaking and saw that it was also embraced by the city of Boston, thus solidifying the city’s false narrative.
It’s not that these are necessarily bad movies either. Quite a few of them are really good (“The Departed” is not)! There just doesn’t seem to be any discernable reason for Boston to portray itself in Hollywood as the ‘edgy city that you could never understand unless you were born and raised there,’ other than a bad case of middle child syndrome. If places like LA, NYC, NOLA, SF and Austin are going to be so sought after by the masses then just pretend like you never even wanted people to like you; just act like people can’t handle how hardcore you are.
The thing is, people love Boston! For some reason though, if they can’t be #1 then they don’t even want to play. It’s a strange inferiority complex, as if the city is looking at the rest of the country with the stink-eye, saying “what you think you’re bettah than me? Fahk you.” Instead of boasting about everything the city has going in its favor, it has instead chosen to build a false mythology of crime, crooked cops, unending self-loathing and pain.
But has it? Perhaps it’s just the fantasy of a few Hollywood folks from the Boston area… we outsiders may never know for sure. This isn’t a condemnation of these movies; “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and “The Fighter” are all A+ movies, but why must people (no matter where they’re from) pretend that there is something the rest of the world just doesn’t know about where they come from?
Every town, city and neighborhood in the world has its unique problems, quirks and issues but when you constantly insist that one of them defines the area when it doesn’t at all… it just feel disingenuous.
Movies viewed as research for this post:
Gone Baby Gone
Good Will Hunting
Live By Night
The Equalizer 2
Manchester By The Sea
Last Flag Flying
The Social Network