Gangs of New York (2002)
Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Martin Scorsese
When we last left Mr. Scorsese, he’d just released his final film of the 20th century, Bringing Out the Dead. I know that picture is experiencing a slight rediscovery & appreciation; I just did not connect with the tone or style. However, it is an excellent example of Scorsese’s fearlessness in experimenting with different techniques, a trait that has dominated his 21st-century work. I don’t think most people would be able to identify who directed The Aviator, Hugo, and Silence if they didn’t know. Those are different movies from each other, and some work while others don’t for me personally, but I always have to hand it to the director for taking risks many filmmakers would never take. Leonard DiCaprio is the one constant in almost every (but not all) Scorsese films in the 2000s and 2010s.
The Five Points was a neighborhood slum in 19th century New York City that became infamous for its residents’ high levels of organized crime and squalor. The film opens in 1846 as the Irish gang Dead Rabbits, led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), goes to war with the Protestant Confederation of American Natives led by “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Despite being supported by other gangs, the Dead Rabbits face tremendous loss, including the death of their leader. Vallon’s young son, nicknamed ‘Amsterdam’ (DiCaprio), is sent to an orphanage on Blackwell’s Island and forgotten about. Time marches on in the Five Points, and sixteen years later, the nation is in the midst of a civil war.
Amsterdam returns to the Five Points making sure his true identity is obscured. An old friend, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), helps Amsterdam become acquainted with where power lies in the neighborhood. It’s, of course, at the feet of Bill the Butcher, who rules over the Five Points like a king. He’s entered into a tenuous alliance with Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who controls the powerful & rotten political organization of Tammany Hall. Amsterdam eventually gets into the good favor of Bill and works his way up the ranks, always with plans to kill the man in the back of his head. He also falls for Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a criminal and on-again/off-again lover of Bill’s. In the background, the tensions around the draft build into a riot while Amsterdam goes about his path of revenge in the name of his father.
We forget how savage a place America was and is. All the myth-making and obfuscation of history has done its job in hiding the nation’s truth from its people. The sudden reactionary scramble against accurate teaching of race in American history has become a hot-button issue. For our children to know the sins of their ancestors would be the undoing of the Great Lie. America is not a “city on a shining hill”; it’s a tenement where children play in the foul squalor of human waste flowing into the streets. Gangs of New York, while exaggerated in many places but also surprisingly accurate to the bizarre nature of life in these slums. This picture reveals the origins of chronologically later organizations in films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas, the roots of a shadow life/economy that fueled American survival as the machine of capitalist progress ground up and spat out millions.
I was most struck by how primitive life was for the Irish immigrants, living in tunnels beneath a collapsing warehouse. These are like cave dwellers, living by the dimmest light from candles and lanterns, sleeping on the dirt, windows an impossibility. The picture planted in Americans’ minds about our history is a candy-colored one, with the whole progression of history presented as a beautiful fairy tale with a few bumps along the way. While ending slavery is, without argument, a needed moment in American history, I also sympathized with newly arrived Irish people whose fathers and sons were immediately enlisted into the Union army under the threat of being deported back. America has a nasty habit of demanding the bodies and lives of people within their sphere of power yet not giving these same people the rights you would expect that they had earned with this sacrifice. Puerto Rico is a great example of an American territory where its people are encouraged to join the military, yet residents of the island cannot vote in national elections.
This doesn’t mean Gangs of New York is a perfect film. I was pretty disappointed at Scorsese attempting an American epic in a style that doesn’t match his strengths. The way he films and presents Gangs of New York feels more akin to something Ridley Scott might have done at the time. There are still great moments of brilliance, but it doesn’t shine as bright as many of Scorsese’s other pictures. The performance given by Daniel Day-Lewis keeps it from becoming too generic. Lewis is developing the prototype for what will be Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. It’s the swagger of someone who believes they are infused with divine flame, stomping about and breathing fire on those in their presence. You can see the way this man came to power and how he will inevitably be taken down. The same arrogance and determination that guided him to this moment will be what undoes him, losing sight of what kept him in power.
Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other hand, the film’s lead, isn’t awful, but I just wasn’t pulled into the movie by him. He’s a perfect cipher for the audience, I suppose. I personally have never understood Scorsese’s adoration for the actor. There are a few films where the performer gels with the material, but this is not one of them. This is still DiCaprio, the neophyte, playing off his movie star status from Titanic by playing a somewhat similar character. Cameron Diaz is adequate, another actor whose cache has never matched what I’ve seen on the screen. Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed is probably the only supporting cast member that stood out for me. He’s a solid character actor who does excellent work with the parts he’s given. I would have almost preferred a story about his Boss Tweed and Bill, showcasing the formation of New York City’s centers of power in the modern era.
The best compliment I think a person can pay to any movie based on historical events is that it made me fascinated with and want to learn more about this gang culture. It reminds us that man is not so far removed from our most primitive forms of society. Everything we live in is built upon a foundation of murder; you don’t come to have political power of any kind without bloodshed. The hope is that good people shed the right blood and create a society that increasingly lessens the need for future bloodshed. The distance America has gone from this period to the present is a baby step; we’re right on the edge of descending back into something very similar. I don’t know how we can avoid it as we hurtle ever faster into oblivion, but if we go back to something like this, we’re doomed.