Caught the Weinstein edit of Gangs of New York this afternoon, and still not sure how I feel about it. A beautifully shot and often entrancing film, but sadly there’s not much there there. Once you get past Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Broadbent chewing the scenery (Day-Lewis pretty much has to win Best Actor for this – he almost singlehandedly carries the film), you’re basically left with a rather perfunctory revenge thriller that, despite the carnival of Five Points, drags on in the third act. Plus, not to get all history geek about it, but this take on the Civil War draft riots seems a bit dubious. Scorsese doesn’t flinch in depicting the atrocities committed against African-Americans during the riots, but you still get the sense that (a) the Irish are too busy rising up against Bill the Butcher’s hordes to be involved and (b) the Union troops are firing on innocent civilians in order to protect the Schermerhorns of New York. In fact, despite whatever friendship Leo struck up with Jimmy Spoils, his black companion in the Dead Rabbits, the Irish — much as it pains me to say it — were the prime instigators of both the riots and the grotesque racial violence that accompanied it. And regarding the federal troops, they arrived weary from Gettysburg on Day 4 of the riots, long after this “innocent” crowd had been engaged in an ethnic murder spree. And these soldiers were attacked by the rioters before they fired on anybody. Most annoying, US Navy ships never fired on the city, as they do during the critical mano a mano moment in the film.
Scorsese’s thesis is interesting – that the Draft Riots represent a turning point in American history when the Federal Government proves itself more powerful than the tribal warlords of the city. But I take issue with the idea, made explicit by Scorsese’s intercutting at the climax of the film, that the Union army is just a bigger, badder gang out solely to protect the parochial interests of the wealthy elite. Obviously, America’s military power has been used to serve narrow economic ends, as attested by our imperial engagements at the turn of the century (and note I didn’t specify which century.) But making that argument in this instance severely downplays the racial element of the riots…In sum, Federal troops weren’t slaughtering an innocent coalition of multi-ethnic immigrants in the name of the almighty buck. They were putting an end to a four-day nightmare of racist terror perpetuated primarily by the Irish, the heroes of Scorsese’s film.
All that being said, Gangs is definitely worth seeing, for Daniel Day-Lewis as much as the exotic flavor of Gotham throughout. And I’m curious to see if the longer cut gives a fuller picture of the riots, which seem almost superfluous in this edit.