I can still remember walking out of the AMC theater in Framingham, Massachusetts after hearing U2’s powerful song The Hands That Built America and marveling at how the falling snow in the parking lot allowed me to remain with Gangs of New York a few minutes longer. The ticket stub I still have tells me it was an 8:15pm screening on Saturday, February 1st, 2003, nearly six weeks after its theatrical release. My fourteen-year-old self was wowed by the experience, which was my first encounter with Martin Scorsese, and declared it my favorite film of 2002.
There are a few things I’ve associated since then with Gangs of New York. It marked Scorsese’s first collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, though it’s probably the actor’s least impressive turn working with the director and not even his best performance of 2002 (that would be Catch Me If You Can). It was one of three Best Picture nominees that John C. Reilly appeared in that year, showing enormous range for the actor. It earned Cameron Diaz her third Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in four years, yet none of those translated to an Oscar nod. And while the film earned ten Oscar nominations, it didn’t win a single trophy, losing its best chances at victory to Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody, and, of all people, Eminem.
On a fresh viewing two decades after its release, it’s interesting to note the presence of certain Scorsese hallmarks. His affinity for the mafia takes him back to long before Goodfellas or The Departed, identifying each of the gangs operating in 1860s New York City as if they’re responding to a roll call, but without the flashy style of those same markers in his most recent narrative film, The Irishman. An actor who gets a great showcase in that film, Stephen Graham, can be seen in Gangs of New York in a smaller part, as can a much younger Eddie Marsan. Two decades before he is likely to earn his first Oscar nomination this year, Brendan Gleeson turns in a memorable performance as a barber-turned-politician, and, fresh off an Oscar win for Iris, Jim Broadbent also delivers a charismatic and calibrated turn as the unapologetically corrupt William “Boss” Tweed.
The quiet moments among the extremely large ensemble of bit players who march shoulder-to-shoulder to their deaths are among the most potent, starting with when Gleeson’s fighter-for-hire kicks the door open to reveal a vast and empty snowy landscape in the film’s first scene. Scorsese has never shied away from violence, and while the first skirmish, between Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and their legions, initially seems staged and without consequences, it just takes minutes for the camera to pan out and show just how bloodstained the streets have become. When Priest is killed, everyone simply returns to their lives to move on, dominance having been shown by Bill and numerous lives lost in the latest futile power struggle.
There is a tragic banality to all the conflict that exists within this film, which draws on broad historical inspiration and certain real-life figures to frame its story. Bill, portrayed by a scenery-chewing and excellent Day-Lewis, fancies himself a “native,” having been born in the United States to English parents, and spews hateful comments about the many immigrant populations tarnishing his ideal of a true America. In one scene where he sits at the bedside of Vallon’s wounded adult son, Amsterdam (DiCaprio), sixteen years after killing the priest, Bill drapes himself in an American flag, declaring himself the definition of an American, willfully dismissive of the legitimacy of anyone else to claim that identity.
The infighting between different groups is presented at times as comical, like when competing fire brigades arrive at a burning building and turn their attention to attacking each other, even selecting the adjacent building as a looting target to punish their enemies rather than bothering to actually extinguish the flames. But this all occurs with the backdrop of the Civil War and the institution of a nationwide draft. Bill, who publicly decries Lincoln as weak for his public position on slavery, walks the streets of New York as if he owns them, but, in the greater scheme of things and the nation at large, no one knows or cares who he is.
Several years after this film’s release, I started college at New York University. During my junior year, I lived at a dormitory two miles south of Washington Square Park. Every day, I would walk up to school, passing through the area known as the Five Points, just above Chinatown. Now, it serves as the intersection of several major streets, but in this film, it’s a seedy den of sin, home to lawlessness and emblematic of a downtown Manhattan abandoned by most. Scorsese, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up right near the Five Points in Little Italy, masterfully creates a place that feels purposefully devoid of structure, distinctly unrecognizable from the New York City of today but rooted in those same landmarks and cross-streets.
After all the bloodshed and senselessness that ensues from Amsterdam’s pursuit of vengeance against the mobster who killed his father, Scorsese brings it all home in the film’s final frames. The graveyard in which both Priest and Bill are buried fades away as the grass becomes overgrown and bridges and skyscrapers emerge in the distance. As a modern-day New York City, one that still features the just-destroyed Twin Towers, comes into view, The Hands That Built America thunders to life, paying tribute to the many immigrant populations who were subjugated and then forgotten as influential foundational elements of the country we know today.
For a time, Scorsese’s first film of the 21st century also seemed like it might be the one to earn him his first Oscar. His follow-up, The Aviator, looked likely to do that too, but it wasn’t until the film after that, The Departed, that he finally won the prize. Gangs of New York belongs loosely to Scorsese’s collection of mafia-centric films but more distinctly to his historical epic genre. It’s ambitious and driven equally by specific characters and by its featured groups as a whole, more important for what they represent than who they individually are. It may not be Scorsese’s best film, but it does manage to resurrect an old, forgotten New York and America in a way only the accomplished filmmaker could.
Gangs of New York was released on December 20, 2002 by Miramax. It is currently available to stream on STARZ, and to rent or buy on Amazon and Prime Video.