Gangs of New York: America Began In the Streets

Although widely recognized as one of the major proponents of gritty realism on film, American auteur Martin Scorsese has long held a personal passion for using his cinematic eye for telling historical stories that many modern audiences had overlooked. With 2002’s Gangs of New York, the renowned director took a unique approach, using modern filmmaking aesthetics to present the earliest roots of New York’s criminal element—a story of struggling immigrants brought to the New World and immediately carving up Manhattan Island for their own. These were the forefathers of the classic archetypes portrayed in Goodfellas and Casino, historical proof that—at least in Scorsese’s eyes—the streets of New York had always been mean. For the first time basing a film on a work of nonfiction, the director later claimed that telling the epic story of New York’s earliest gang warfare, entwined with the American immigrant experience, had long been a passion project and with an all-star cast including Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, and John C. Reilly, Scorsese finally brought that vision to the screen—although the lengthy historical drama soon divided opinion. Considered both a Nearly 20 years later, modern YouTubers now take another look at Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and reassess its place within the renowned director’s vast canon. As YouTuber BrandoCritic noted, the sheer attention to detail within the historical film was enough to grant Scorsese credit for his astounding imagery, stating:

When you’re making a movie, especially a ‘period piece,’ you really have to get the details of the world right because you’re trying to create an illusion, and we need the audience to be sucked into this world that you’ve created … Gangs of New York has built a world like no other I’ve seen on film.

At MovieNight, commentator Jonathan Paula was, likewise, impressed with the attention to detail and historical accuracy, elaborating that while the visual and cosmetic elements are successful, the storyline itself had a tendency to become muddled under the weight of the film’s epic scope. Paula noted:

Expertly photographed, there’s no denying the amazing aptitude at which 19th century New York is recreated—every last element is surprisingly detailed and authentic. Attempting to balance class warfare struggles, the New York Draft Riots of 1863, a love story, a revenge plot, and Manhattan’s politics, Scorsese’s ambition, unfortunately, gets the better of him, as even the picture’s liberal 166-minute runtime isn’t enough to make a compelling picture out of everything.

According to The History Squad, the lush canvas of old New York is the film’s greatest strength and, while there were a few minor errors in complete historical accuracy, the overall immersive experience was not interrupted by, largely due to the sweeping cinematography and acting. In addition, the film’s correct depiction of the time period’s politics and civil unrest were completely true to life. The YouTuber stated:

Gangs of New York captures the atmosphere perfectly, whether it be the racial tension or corruption … Anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant with the nativists, while racism was prevalent all around. The movie doesn’t try to downplay or sugarcoat the roles of nativism in the shaping of New York and the people of the time. Personally, I’m glad that Martin Scorsese decided not to pull any blows when it comes to language or the representation of any characters, allowing for more of an immersive viewing experience.

Although Gangs of New York did garner 18 Oscar nominations, it won none—and as many film commentators have noted, the primary faults within the film were due to the storyline and pacing. As BrandoCritic explained:

It’s that classic Scorsese story: you have that one guy who has it all and, of course, greed and his ego are eventually his downfall—and add on top of that, ‘You killed my father and I’m going to avenge him’ storyline … It’s very simple but again, it’s the world that the movie creates that steals the show. Think of it as a movie that you’ve seen before, but with a really nice coat of paint on it—and what a coat of paint that is.

YouTuber Austin Burke elaborated on that theme in his own reassessment, adding:

I think this film is wonderful … Two things about this movie keeping it from being one of the best absolute Scorsese movies: Cameron Diaz’s performance, I’m not the biggest fan of [and] she’s not awesome in this movie. And then, I do think this is another Scorsese film that is just a tad bit too long—and you can feel the length.

Aside from a few minor squabbles, however, what almost all film commentators and fans agreed upon as the Gangs of New York’s greatest strength were its performances—particularly that of Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn as the chief antagonist, Bill the Butcher. YouTuber BrandoCritic stated:

And who runs this hell-ridden shithole of New York City? Bill the Butcher … Daniel Day-Lewis is a force to be reckoned with on screen. He is fantastic … such a terrifying villain, [and] simply put, if you hate the villain—if he comes on screen and you are scared of him, you automatically want our hero to succeed even more—and we root for Leonardo DiCaprio even more.

In his own reassessment of the film, Austin Burke agreed that Day-Lewis’ performance was the film’s most standout accomplishment, even amid the nearly three-hour runtime. Burke added:

I really like everything this movie represents and it stands for … We have Liam Neeson, Leonardo DiCaprio, John C. Reilly, and—of course—Daniel Day-Lewis, who really is just the glue of this movie. He brings it all together [and it’s] one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen from him.

In his remarks regarding the film’s pacing YouTuber Jonathan Paula at MovieNight noted that—in true Scorsese fashion—the fight scenes are particularly brutal and realistic, adding to some of Gangs of New York’s greater strengths. Paula commented:

The opening and closing battle sequences are, however, rather amazing—thrilling, gritty, violent, emotional, and brilliantly shot. But the forgetful, confusing, and haphazard middle two hours represent nothing but wasted potential.

On the whole, the YouTuber found Gangs of New York to be a mixed bag, an unfortunate commonality among film fans used to seeing Scorsese’s more action-packed dramatic films. In his assessment, Paula concluded:

When it works, the experience here is undeniably moving, engrossing, and exciting—but, when it’s surrounded by such a poorly-paced and bloated plot, even the amazing acting, visuals, and directing get overlooked.

Not in total disagreement, BrandoCritic commented that, although there are flaws within the film, the mastery of Scorsese’s direction, the performances, and the exquisite attention to detail and historical accuracy give the film its highest merits. The YouTuber concluded:

Even though I get that there are flaws in this movie … [it] shows us that America was not founded by a bunch of guys with wigs … We see, through this movie, that it wasn’t quite like that. It was founded in the streets.