"Gangs of New York" (Miramax), 168 minutes, R
Directed by Martin Scorsese; Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, based on the book by Herbert Asbury
Leonardo DiCaprio: Amsterdam
Daniel Day-Lewis: "Bill the Butcher"
Cameron Diaz: Jennie Everdeane
Jim Broadbent: Boss Tweed
Movies about gangs often raise enduring questions about justice and becoming American. Consider "The Godfather," which begins with the line, "I believe in America"; "The Warriors," which used a multiracial gang to retell Xenophon's Anabasis; and "West Side Story," with Rita Moreno singing "America." For all its epic strivings, "Gangs of New York" never achieves these heights, for it stubbornly maintains the perspective of tribes.
"America was born in the streets" is the tagline of this movie set in a lavishly depicted Civil War-era New York. While the war down south produces nothing but casualty lists and anti-draft riots, the gang wars bring forth men of honor and courage, pre-political men who sneer at elections and laws, and live by guile and strength. These are the film's initial two rivals: the nativist leader known as "the Butcher" and the Irish leader known as "the Priest." In a savage battle the Butcher slays the Priest, before the horrified eyes of the Priest's young son. Calling himself "Amsterdam," the now grown man lives to kill the feared Butcher, who rules lower Manhattan, specifically the crime-ridden Five Points area (now the Bowery-Chinatown-Little Italy). But in maneuvering closer to the Butcher, so he can kill him in an honorable way, Amsterdam comes to admire him. After all, the Butcher declares the man he slew as a great man, a man who cared for his Irish tribe, "the last honorable man." The savage gang battle that ended in Amsterdam's father's death is memorialized in the Butcher's annual ode to that hero's qualities.
The Butcher's glass eye bears an American flag. He is fond of recalling his own father's death in the War of 1812. (Calculating from his age of 47 in 1863, we see that he never knew his father.) The only true Americans are those who are willing to die for their country. But the Civil War means nothing to him. The Butcher's war for America is a war of containment — that is, containment of the Irish Catholic immigrant invasion ("15,000 a week!") through a criminal empire. Alliances with Chinese immigrants and Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall have their uses. So does recruiting some of the Irish for his own gang. These are prudent courses of action. The Butcher declares fear to be the great motivator of human conduct. Yet this analysis clearly excludes himself (except, perhaps, for a fear of Papist domination of America) — and Amsterdam. An effigy of Abraham Lincoln, dangling by wires, is mocked in a stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin that only magnifies the heroic qualities of the two protagonists.
The Emancipation Proclamation merely aggravates tribal conflicts. White New Yorkers resent and later slaughter blacks, blaming them for the Civil War. Starving Irish immigrants are recruited into the Union army, right off the boats. These are hapless victims in a meaningless war to "free niggers." Although both sides in the gang wars profess Christianity of one sect or other, there is no national political religion. The national government is prominent only in the armed force that subdues the gangs.
Director Martin Scorsese tells a rich story of how the lower Manhattan he grew up in came to be. But America was not "born in the streets" — not even New York City can make such a claim. America was born on July 4, 1776 and perpetuated through the Civil War, which a heroic Abraham Lincoln turned into a battle over a proposition of human equality. That principle enables immigrants the world over, not to mention the descendants of slaves, to become Americans, and not be abandoned to learn about what America means in the streets. Today, the heroes of the streets are the latter-day successors of Bill the Butcher. They require the use of force, but we also require the rest of the civics lesson. A hint of that lesson may be seen in the film's last scene — a panorama of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn that contains a shot of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.