Just a few nights ago my wife asked me if I had seen Gangs of New York, in a manner that indicated she wasn't sure whether or not we had just talked about it recently. (When you have two small children who are highly unreliable about sleeping through the night, conversations with that imprecise quality about them are fairly common.) I indicated I had not seen it, and she followed up by confirming that I was going to see it soon (as I had alluded to hereabouts). I, in turn, asked if she had seen it, and she said she had and was also prompted to ask if I had heard anything about it. I felt like I had, although I couldn't really put my finger on any specific sources, but told my wife I was under the impression that it was ... not as good as it should be? She agreed wholeheartedly with that assessment.
(Incidentally, the context in which Gangs of New Ypork came to the forefront of my wife's mind was watching the Ravens in the playoffs, as she believes Joe Flacco's current, semi-goofy facial hair gives him an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. It's a fair point. Also I haven't had a chance yet this week to bring up the NFL but HOW BOUT THEM GIANTS!!!)
So, prejudicial assessments aside, was Gangs of New York worth watching, two hours and forty-seven minutes across two DVDs and all? Most definitely. There's some virtuoso work from Scorsese there, which is pretty much to be expected, I suppose. Every shot is composed and considered, as is every juxtaposition from one scene to the next. I was especially taken with one long, unbroken shot that tracks along a line of immigrants getting off a boat in New York harbor, filing past a table where the able-bodied men are heavily recruited into the Union army, moving on to the area where uniforms and rifles are handed out, panning across boys in uniform standing in line waiting to board another ship bound for Tennessee, then rising up off the ground to sweep up the gangplank only to be intercepted by a wooden coffin being lowered by ropes and pulleys down to the docks where it will join dozens of other identical pine boxes. I'm a sucker for elaborate displays of technical proficiency like that (not to mention practically comicbook-like tapestry storytelling).
And of course Daniel Day-Lewis is just genius as William Cutting. I remember reading once that a melodrama is a story that locks its dramatis personae into well-defined roles from beginning to end - the hero always behaves heroically, the villain is forever villainous, the damsel perpetually distressed, &c. I found myself thinking of that quite a bit during the course of the movie (no doubt many people would dismiss the whole period costume epic as "melodramatic") particularly in the case of Bill the Butcher. He has a certain monomaniacal point of view in the prologue, which never wavers from the time the action picks up again sixteen years later to the very end of the film. He does not, as they say, demonstrate any particular character growth. And yet he's the most watchable thing up there any time he's on screen. Maybe it's just that the bad guys always seem to be having the most fun, maybe it's the hypnotic combination of his exaggerated lower-class native accent and his propensity for flowery turns of phrase which altogether sound like no other human being's speech. Whatever the underlying cause, he's worth the price of admission.
And yet despite a fantastic director and a fantastic heavy, it's not quite a fantastic movie. It's very good, but that can be true without contradicting our initial premise here, that it's just not as good as it should be. I don't really think that it's the fault of young Leo DiCaprio's unsteady Irish accent, or Cameron Diaz playing slightly out of her league (or not entirely those things, at any rate). I think maybe it's the sense that the whole movie feels somewhat overstuffed, combining a classic tale of an orphan son returning to his home after years of exile to avenge the murder of his father with a detailed history lesson about Civil War-era New York City. There's a lot of explication to underline the social studies coursework, between stilted dialogues and even more stilted overdubbed interior monologues and intercut newspaper clippings and so on. And the entire movie builds up to the Draft Riots, which certainly make for an interesting resolution to the tale of gangs and power struggles and corruption and such, but ... in order to set up the personal enmity between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Vallon, while at the same time establishing the Conscription Act and the immigration issues and the pervasive sleaze of Tammany Hall and so forth, the movie is really serving two masters. Yes it all comes together tragically and brilliantly at the end but it is a long trek back and forth on parallel paths to get there.
Combining two movies into one requires some stitching at the seams, and I think the seams become pretty visible in spots, and once that happens all the amazing tracking shots and historically accurate recreations of the architecture of Five Points seem like so much artifice, and the film ceases to be something transcendant that can sweep you up in it. But I suppose there are worse cinematic crimes than being overly ambitious and coming down just short of awe-inspiring.