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Gangs of New York

Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz,
Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas
and Brendan Gleeson

Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

"Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points... All that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here."

— Charles Dickens

Such is how the 19th century's most prolific purveyor of abject poverty reported back to London in his American Notes after having gone slumming in lower Manhattan's infamously crime-ridden confluence of criminality, which was home to an uneasy mixture of immigrants (mostly Irish) and former slaves struggling to make their way in a brave, but deeply intolerant, new world. For the Irish, the scorn and violence that would become a part of their everyday life greeted them mercilessly in the harbor, where "native born" citizens, comprising mostly Anglo-Dutch thugs, pelted them with any projectile available — fruit, vegetable, spit — to make absolutely clear their message: You are not welcome here. Since a return to Ireland was roughly akin to a death sentence by starvation, these supposed interlopers had no intention of leaving, but to stay would necessitate carving out a putrid slice of land — the foul, former tannery cesspool that was the Five Points — and fight tooth-and-nail for it.

This story was told somewhat apocryphally in Herbert Asbury's 1927 book The Gangs of New York, which Martin Scorsese first encountered by chance over 30 years ago. Not surprisingly, the then-young filmmaker, who would soon become one of the great cinematic chroniclers of the New York City underworld, saw in this tome the story of America's bloody evolution from a democratic experiment to a functioning diverse society. At the heart of his film would be a simmering tale of revenge featuring a fictionalized representation of Bill "The Butcher" Poole (given the last name of "Cutting" in the picture), the ruthless gang boss of the Bowery Boys who wore his murderous nativism on his blood-caked apron, and Amsterdam, the son of his Irish adversary, whom he struck down on the field of battle. Their feud built to the conflagration of the Draft Riot of 1863 that nearly ripped out the city's teetering foundation and collapsed it into anarchy.

After a couple of false starts over three decades, it appropriately fell to the boisterous, glorified gang-boss of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, to corral the financing for Scorsese's labor of love, and, indeed, he gave the director the keys to the store. Filming on the storied soundstages of Cinecitta Studios in Rome, former home to Fellini and Visconti, Scorsese hired the brilliant Dante Ferretti to build extravagant sets the likes of which, the director proudly proclaimed, would never be seen again. He amassed a wonderful cast, coaxing the semi-retired Daniel Day-Lewis out of his apprenticeship as a cobbler, and brought on the esteemed Sandy Powell to costume them. With a budget close to (and probably exceeding) $100 million, Scorsese would finally be able to, like Dickens, plunge into the sordid world of the Five Points, only this time emerging with the story of how his beloved city's glory — and, by extension, America's — was won in those mean streets.

The rest, of course, is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

*          *          *

By the time Gangs of New York arrived to theaters a year late in December of 2002, most critics wrote about the film as if it was a near-brilliant circumvention of compromise forced upon the director by the meddlesome Weinstein. There are reporters who claim to have seen an earlier three-hour cut that, with the addition of 20 minutes or so, is allegedly the difference between noble failure and masterpiece. But Scorsese vehemently claims that, at 167 minutes, this is his final cut, and he's more than earned the right to be taken at his word.

What some critics failed to recognize was that the critical time-span playing into Gangs of New York's many flaws wasn't the two years of editing; it was the 30 years of research. This is an over-thought film of second-guessed artistic impulses that have grown cold after being replayed again and again in Scorsese's imagination. There are many bravura sequences in the picture, the most discussed being the conscription tracking shot that, to some, was classic Scorsese. But this didn't have the spontaneous fluidity of the back-door tour through the Copa in Goodfellas; rather, it was a stiffly executed idea that telegraphs its final reveal the minute Scorsese calls attention to his technique by bumping Bill and Amsterdam out of the frame.

This craftsmanship is so glaringly ostentatious because Scorsese has undercut the story of Amsterdam and Cutting by constructing it as a mythic saga of revenge. Scorsese, with the assistance of his three immensely talented writers, has imagined the film as a battle of archetypes making capital-letter History. But the story is imbalanced, and its telling muddled. Scenes rarely play to their full duration, and often are chopped up and cut together incongruously (e.g. Amsterdam's return to the bowels of The Old Brewery and Bill's meeting with Boss Tweed to discuss terms of enforcement by the Bowery Boys; their relationship is so tenuous as to scream "compression!") Narration, usually so well-managed by Scorsese, is dropped in intermittently, and often to provide a lyricism otherwise absent in the filmmaking. Meanwhile, his other strength, the evocative use of music, is inconsistent as well. The traditional folk music arrangements are quite lovely, particularly at the social where Amsterdam and Jenny fall in love, but the bewildering use of a jarringly anachronous Peter Gabriel tune to score the initial battle sequence seems like an ill-considered holdover from the time when Scorsese had planned for The Clash to compose the film's soundtrack.

Such aesthetic collisions are perhaps fitting for a film that is itself a collision of scrupulously researched history and deeply considered themes, but the resulting cacophony drowns out the plight of every character save for Day-Lewis's Cutting. It should come as little surprise that Scorsese allows his affinity for Bill to dwarf Amsterdam's plight, but the price is gladly paid as one enjoys the pleasure of watching Day-Lewis disappear into the character's outsized menace. It's a performance of complete immersion that suggests a more nuanced variation on the cartoony homicidal highs of De Niro's Max Cady. Though he's a repugnant piece of work, Day-Lewis allows us a glimpse of the human being that once resided in this hateful shell when, wrapped über-significantly in an American flag, he solemnly confides in Amsterdam his nihilistic outlook that was born on the day he took the life of "the last good man," i.e. Amsterdam's father.

But DiCaprio can't keep up the end of his bargain, and, when it comes to smuggling his smaller revenge drama into the fabric of this enormous historical fantasia, neither can Scorsese. By ending with the Draft Riot, Scorsese has bitten off a huge, unexploited chunk of history that should probably have been its own film. Sparked by the conscription of poor immigrants enlisted to defend a Union which barely acknowledged their existence, the ensuing melee became an excuse for some of the dregs of society to take out their frustrations on the city's black population, as well as the rich. Scorsese depicts fairly vividly the assault on the opulent Schermerhorn estate, but he glosses over the lynchings and other atrocities visited upon the former slaves that had settled in Manhattan. Due to the film's presumably mandated, under three-hour length, there was never a chance that this chapter of the riot would be handled with the sensitivity and outrage so clearly required. But in the context of a film purporting to show how New York City came to be, the relegating of this particular tragedy to the background feels terribly disrespectful. To ignore their contribution is to render the film incomplete; it's an exclusionary history.

Fittingly, for a film steeped in all manner of controversy, Gangs of New York ends with an image that has bitterly divided viewers. Conceived before the attacks of 9/11, Scorsese closes the film with a montage of dissolves of the city's ever-changing skyline that ends with the World Trade Center still standing before fading to black. Scorsese has defended this choice by stating that his characters helped set the stage for the creation of the skyline, not the destruction of it. It's a sound argument, but it also inadvertently suggests that the history of New York City, the one still churning and honking and bustling at the end of the closing credits, ended on September 11, 2001; that the contributions of the film's characters only apply to that point, and thereafter give way to a landscape created by terrorists. However, as the city prepares to rechristen its skyline in tribute to those who unexpectedly gave their lives that day, it's clear that the same indefatigable survival instincts, the ones that brought knife to stomach and club to skull, live on. The finest compliment Scorsese could've paid the city would've been to suggest that it doesn't matter how bloodied and battered the city's physiognomy gets; it's still New York City, and it's going nowhere.

*          *          *

Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents Gangs of New York in a vibrant anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The film is spread out over two discs, with the majority of the extras landing on Disc One. Perhaps the most anticipated extra is the Scorsese commentary, which is going to prove a massive disappointment for anyone craving a blow-by-blow insight into the staging of certain scenes or gossipy tidbits from the film's troubled production history. The absence of the latter is hardly a detriment — there's been plenty of ink spilled already over the battle, and Scorsese has already demonstrated a willingness to keep mum on the matter and let the film speak for itself — but, because the commentary is cobbled together from several interviews, including a good deal from his appearance on NPR's "Fresh Air," there's a nagging lack of specificity to his comments. This is not to say that the track is a wash — Scorsese is, as always, an endlessly entertaining raconteur — but, aside from an edifying deconstruction of the editing of the first battle sequence (which he compares to Eisenstein's Potemkin and Welles's Chimes at Midnight), it's kind of old news.

Other extras include a pair of featurettes on the set design (9 min.) and the costumes (8 min.); a terrific guided tour of the sets by Scorsese and Ferretti, with optional 360 degree views, that gives a sense of what a madly grandiose undertaking this all was (22 min.); a Discovery Channel documentary entitled "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York" that offers a brief history lesson couched in promotion for the film (34 min.); and a "History of the Five Points" that gives a cursory background of the slum's significance to the city in the 19th Century. There's also a "Five Points Study Guide," which contains an essay by historian Luc Sante and a glossary of the era's terms, the U2 video for "The Hands that Built America," and two trailers.

— Clarence Beaks

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