Gangs of N.Y.
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
week, the Film Gang does something unusual by reviewing the same
movie twice. Shot entirely in the Italian studios of Cinecittà,
theMartin Scorsese film is a spectacular theatrical production
of epic proportions that tells a story of early inter-ethnic gang
warfare in 19th-cebntury New York City.
Liam Neeson is the Irish Catholic immigrant priest who leads his
"dead rabbit" gang against the American-born Natives,
lead by Daniel Day-Lewis (ironically, another Irishman), as Bill
"the Butcher" Cutting. Knives are, indeed, the weapons
of choice, along with a host of homely domestic and agricultural
tools. The Butcher triumphs, and Vallon's son, who witnesses the
battle, is whisked off to reform school, where he emerges 16 years
later as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) to seek revenge. Bill has
completely taken over the West Village slums called Five Points,
with the help of politician William 'Boss" tweed, played
by Jim Broadbent. It is now the Civil War and Irish immigrants
pour off the boats only to be enfranchised, signed up, uniformed
and shipped down south to fight. The Natives, still touting their
racist and xenophobic lines, seem to have incorporated some of
the Irish Catholics, thus demonstrating that racial and ethnic
differences are often only ideological pretexts for drawing battle
lines, becoming fuzzy and mobile as opportunism dictates . . .
until something or someone comes along to redraw the boundaries.
Scorsese takes some liberties with American history: the peak
of Irish immigration is made to coincide with the Civil War, while
the nativist movement continues farther into the century than
it actually did. But this is not realism, naturalism, or even
history: it's political allegory couched in the eloquent and extravagant
language of melodrama and the family romance: Amsterdam is the
son Bill never had, who conspires nevertheless to kill him and
covets the woman-Jenny, played by Cameron Diaz-who "belongs"
to Bill. This is a different kind of "birth of a nation,"
one that transposes our current conflicts to an earlier time to
underscore the bloody, repetitive, cycles of racism, political
corruption, and state repression that both found and continue
to characterize the nation.
One of the most brilliant moves the movie makes in its seemingly
broad-stroke but actually quite subtle analysis is to juxtapose
the final showdown between Amsterdam and Bill with the draft riots
of 1863, where the working masses and the lumpen go uptown on
a rampage against the state that conscripts them. However much
we want to applaud their resistance, we hear voice-over news reports
of-and see-the mobs lynching black men on the streets, even as
they storm the homes of the nouveau urban aristocracy. Meanwhile,
DiCaprio's voice-over comments on their own anachronistic vision
of a world where local feudal lords defend their turf, while capitalists
and politicians sit back and watch one-half of the poor kill the
other half. And, finally, when it all gets out of control, the
state, with its superior technology and might, turns its high-powered
weaponry on the people of New York.
This is a pessimistic vision of the genealogy of a city that,
Scorsese suggests, has been almost completely forgotten. Instead
we like to make our gangsters exceptional and not-quite-white,
like Tony Soprano, and our leaders preoccupied with external enemies
rather than the internal threats posed by the disenchanted masses.
Meanwhile, this story is told in spectacular Baz Luhrmannesque
style and quotes the great American urban sagas of film and history,
from West Side Story to the LA rebellion, and including the director's
own previous visions of N.Y. It's a magnificent production; I
recommend it highly. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP
and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.