TheSophomoreCritic: What was the theme of Gangs of New York?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What was the theme of Gangs of New York?

I just saw Gangs of New York from start to finish for the very first time. The film, dating from the holiday season of 2002 is best known as the first of Martin Scorsesee's three grandiose efforts to come up with something masterpiece-ish so he could nab himself an Oscar so he can safely retire into the proverbial cinematic hall of fame. It was a film of impressive scope and it has its advocates and detractors but admittedly, the bar was set very high with the expectations.

The film is certainly an epic, so watching it on TV at home is an experience open to distractions, but in a theater I can imagine it to be even better. The best quality of the film is its authenticity (or rather one of the two best qualities, see Daniel Day-Lewis), it was meticulously researched and takes us to a very interesting period in history. What could be more interesting than New York before all the sky scrapers came up?

Cameron Diaz gives an excellent performance that completely erases the image of Hollywood lightweight and Leo DiCaprio was starting to transition around this time to pretty-looking childstar to an actor admired by his peers. There's a great ensemble and an interesting web of characters including John C Reilley, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson.

Day-Lewis, one of the other two things the movie is well-known for, created one of the most
memorable characters of the decade. He nearly won an Oscar for one of the most subtle and nuanced performances to be nominated for best actor this decade. This is all the more impressive when you consider that in this day and age, the path to earning Oscar love is to play mentally ill, be bombastic in execution, or play a real-life figure with the utmost precision. Day-Lewis's performance was none of those: Day-Lewis just infused the character with fully-fleshed out details and made him interesting in every second he was onscreen. Day-Lewis's performance had the most buzz that season, and not in terms of Oscar buzz: Bill the Butcher was water cooler talk even for people who aren't Oscar buffs, and he did it again this past year with Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. His win for There Will Be Blood was as much for Gangs of New York as it was for this past year.

What I found interesting was the feeling of contradiction between the Oscar-nominated song "Hands that Built America" which I might take to be the theme, with the actual events of the story. To put it bluntly, I just kind of felt a sense of tragedy, because it's not like these gangs actually accomplished anything heroic and were remembered in history. All they did was kill each other. It was like what the aristocrat said to boss tweed about one half of the poor being hired to kill the other half. I don't feel like any character made any lasting contributions (beyond Tweed) towards anything historically that enables America or New York to exist as it is today. Amsterdam's efforts to get McGinn elected were in vain. There efforts to incite a riot against the draft and get the attention of people in power to change anything were equally in vain because the higher-ups jsut brought out some cannons and killed them like they were all just insignificant thugs. I think Scorsesee wanted me to empathize with their causes more than the people who ran New York at the time wanted them to, but in all fairness, these people "were not the hands that built America." They tried to build America and put forth a noble effort but ultimately they didn't change anything.


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Anonymous said...

Your lamenting final paragraph completely misses the final point of the film. The Five Points and those fighting for its control were an insignificant part of a far larger political battle, the central characters completely manipulated by Tweed for the sake of winning votes, and despite the honour fought for in the film, in a time of civil war these were sensibilities completely secondary to the industrial political machine