In one sense Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating, epic new film is a sort of mirror image of his 1993 version of “The Age of Innocence.” That picture, adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel, was a deliberate, meticulous recreation of upper-class life in the New York City of the later nineteenth century. “Gangs of New York,” on the other hand, depicts circumstances in a far less tony region of town–the infamous Five Points region–during a slightly earlier period. But it also calls other pictures to mind. One is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic “The Birth of a Nation.” While that famous (some would say infamous) film involved the emergence of a “new” country in the aftermath of the civil war, mostly by focusing on the south with its persistent racial divisions, this one considers the same phenomenon from the perspective of the north, where similar ethnic, racial and social antagonisms exploded in the New York draft riots of the 1860s. Scorsese’s film also features a romantic triangle that might cause some viewers to recall that in another civil war epic, “Gone With the Wind” (though this is a much more macho piece).
Obviously in its effort to treat of the way in which the problems of immigration and race have affected American history, “Gangs” is an extraordinarily ambitious film, even for so adventurous a director as Scorsese; and while the result is flawed, the important fact is that it often succeeds, and very impressively. It’s a very old-fashioned picture in its sweep and vision, the sort of massive historical undertaking that’s not often attempted today; Hollywood now finds it far more profitable to spend hundreds of millions in creating new worlds, and then populating them with non-humans, than in reconstructing, and seriously trying to interpret, the actual past. It’s also classically structured, setting up a personal conflict within a wider one and then using coincidence to bring them together in a single climax. Yet the sensibility brought to the material has a distinctly modern feel. That’s true not only in terms of the masterful technical virtuosity it exhibits–watch for an exhilarating tracking shot, very characteristic of the director, in which Irish immigrants are recruited for the Union army straight off the boat and then immediately outfitted and sent off to war–but in the suggestion, so different from what one finds in Griffith, that out of violence some progress toward harmony can be effected. Whether such a marriage of the old and the new will prove very attractive to audiences in 2002–after all, even a picture like “The Patriot,” which was a much more pandering, juvenile effort along similar lines, was hardly a smash–but in terms of artistic success, “Gangs of New York” confounds those who muttered darkly about its difficult production and release delays to emerge as a powerful, compelling and intelligent if imperfect work, and a major addition to the Scorsese canon.
The script, fashioned very loosely by Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan from historical materials–most particularly a 1928 book by Herbert Asbury–opens with a prologue set in 1846, when a gang of Irish immigrants called the Dead Rabbits and headed by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson) confronts the immigrant-hating Nativist forces led by “Butcher” Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in bloody combat. After a long, gruesome battle with clubs and knives, choreographed with horrifying effect by Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker–the Nativists triumph as Cutting kills Vallon, winning undisputed control of the Five Points region and reducing the Irish to a subservient state. Sixteen years later, Vallon’s son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from the Hellgate Reformatory, plotting revenge. He finds, however, that most of his father’s old supporters are in league with Cutting: McGlion (Gary Lewis) is now one of his lieutenants, Johnny (Henry Thomas) pays him part of his thief’s income, and Jack (John C. Reilly) is now a cop allied with the local boss, who’s an important cog in the growing political machine of Bill Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Only the gruff McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) stands apart. In a twist that admittedly requires a major suspension of disbelief, Amsterdam gradually worms his way into Cutting’s confidence, becoming like an adopted son to him. Troubles ensue between them, however, when he grows enamored of Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a vivacious pickpocket who’s been involved with Cutting, and is encouraged by some who know his identity to take action against Vallon’s killer. Eventually the young man takes on his father’s old role and confronts Cutting, whom Tweed has begun to view as a political liability; the final confrontation between the men, which brings the story full circle, coincides with the riots over the nation’s first military conscription law, which raged through the city for five days in 1863 and, the picture argues, represented the end of an era when the old power brokers like the Schermerhorns (the family here headed by David Hemmings) were faced with the fact that the masses now had to be seriously reckoned with.
Despite its fairly standard revenge formula, a number of factors rescue “Gangs of New York” from falling into a predictable schematic rut. Most important are the characterization of Cutting and Day-Lewis’ remarkable portrayal of him. “The Butcher” is clearly an appalling man in most respects, filled with implacable hatreds and capable of incredible violence and cruelty; but especially when compared to the slippery Machiavellianism of Tweed or the oblivious superiority of Schermerhorn, there’s a certain primitive nobility and straightforwardness in him, and his respect for the fallen “Priest” and crudely avuncular attitude toward Amsterdam suggest a residue of humanity, however brutally it might be expressed. Day-Lewis captures all the facets of the character with extraordinary skill, from Cutting’s vulgar swagger to his pseudo-elevated patterns of speech, and he delivers his lines in a flat, threatening tone that seems exactly right. It’s an amazing turn that reminds us of how much his talent has been missed on screen over the past half decade, and together with the picture’s embrace of important themes–class conflict, the struggle of newcomers to succeed in the face of prejudice, political chicanery, urban violence–it keeps the picture mostly a fascinating and challenging one.
Unfortunately, the other side of the equation isn’t as strong. DiCaprio has apparently bulked up a bit for the part of Amsterdam, and he certainly works hard, both at his accent and his acting, but beside Day-Lewis he remains rather bland and lightweight, never achieving the sort of heroic stature the role demands. (His narration, too, doesn’t seem tonally quite right–the fault of both the reading and the writing.) And while certain members of the supporting cast–Neeson, Gleeson, Broadbent, Reilly, Hemmings–are as good as one could wish, they’re all relatively underutilized, and others less capable (Thomas, Lewis) emphasized more than one might wish. As for Diaz, she’s certainly comely and engaging, but she never reaches the level of radiance that Jenny should have.
On the other hand, the film is most elegantly crafted. The recreation of nineteenth-century New York on Roman sets is staggeringly successful (production designer Dante Ferretti deserves the highest praise), and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus captures the locations expertly. Howard Shore’s music is beautifully supportive, too.
One can certainly find fault with “Gangs of New York,” then, but at the same time one can’t help but admire its reach, and the overall achievement surely makes up for its incidental imperfections. It may not succeed in being, as Woodrow Wilson supposedly said of Griffith’s civil war classic, “like writing history with lightning,” but it’s a full-bodied, wide-ranging historical work, a film of enormous ambition which realizes its aims more often than not.