Some directors thrive on big budgets and big canvases. One such director was David Lean, whose most distinguished works were also his largest. His vision needed the money, the locations, the numerous extras. Others, like Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, seem to perform better on a lower budget. Otherwise, they just can't seem to resist the urge to indulge themselves a little too much. Such was the case with the Coens' Hudsucker Proxy, and so is the case with Scorsese's Gangs of New York.
I bought this very well-produced DVD blindly, not having seen the film, first. I don't regret the purchase; Scorsese has made some of the best American films of the past 30 years, and his commentary track alone is worth the price. I only wish he had lent his voice to Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or GoodFellas, instead. These films were smaller, more focused, and just plain better. Slight production values in these films led to tight, tough, clean stories that reached as deep psychologically as technically. Scorsese's flamboyant camera style blended smoothly with gripping, dramatic stories and memorable characters, fusing a sculpted whole.
Gangs of New York, by contrast, is undernourished at heart. For all of his technique, Scorsese cannot disguise the humdrum revenge story and lifeless "romance" at its center. It's a shame, since the efforts of many very talented people - not least Scorsese himself - seem wasted a good deal of the time.
But not always. There are individual sequences in Gangs of New York that almost justify the colossal effort and expense of bringing it to the screen. Daniel Day-Lewis holds the screen magnificently as Bill the Butcher in every scene he's in. The biggest mistake of the film is not making him the main character. His ascent to power, flirtations with the politics of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed, and eventual death at the hands of a young man looking for revenge - THESE are the elements that would have made a great film, were they not frustratingly pushed into the background by the tedious, lackluster character of Amsterdam Vallon. Leonardo DiCaprio is an interesting actor, but his character as written is just not compelling enough to carry the sheer weight of this film. Perhaps he was seen by the studio (or Scorsese himself) as more "bankable". Perhaps the heroic/romantic aspects of his character were deemed "safer". But if there is one lesson big studios seem to insist on learning over and over again, it's that nothing fails quite as spectacularly as "tried and true". Gangs of New York, like The Godfather, is a film that cries out for a compelling villain as its hero. In Day-Lewis' character, it could have had one. It's a shame.
For students of history, though, this DVD is must. Though fictional, the film's tepid story is nonetheless based on historical fact. The extra material provides a wealth of data to support this, which is invaluable to anyone wishing to disabuse themselves or others of silly romantic notions about our country's roots. Most civilized societies are founded on a bedrock of violence and conquest. The United States is no exception. Most American conservatives would take exception to that statement, but it is demonstrably true. It requires no less than an act of willful self-delusion to think otherwise.
The truth, that at least part of our history is marked by savage struggles and bloody turf wars, is a hard pill to swallow, but one that we should endeavor to, nonetheless. That is the real value of this DVD, and of this film. As an entertaining movie, it is merely so-so. As a history lesson, it deserves your attention.