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Martin Scorsese’s epic film Gangs of New York was one of the most highly anticipated films of the year in 2002, and, accordingly, reviewers were all eager to see it and cast their opinion. Part of the reason the film was so anticipated was that, due to issues in post-production, its release came nearly a year late. This was mentioned in many of the reviews, with allusions to internal conflict centered on Scorsese’s vision and Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein’s paranoia with turning a profit. The film was grandiose, costing over $100 million and representing over twenty-five years of Scorsese’s pent-up ambition, and, as many of the critics lamented, this was ultimately incompletely shown. Gangs of New York, as we saw it, left almost an hour of itself on the cutting-room floor. Nearly every critic commented on how the story seemed rushed, jammed together, and lacked sufficient development. How much of this should be blamed on Scorsese was routinely questioned. Critics were also very consistent that one of the film’s greatest strengths was its control of scenery, costume, and atmosphere. The film’s ultimate triumph, though, was in the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. The critics were virtually unanimous that he carried the film and stole the show and delivered one of the greatest performances of all time. Co-stars DiCaprio and Diaz, particularly, were also widely noted for their respective shortcomings, with most reviewers referring to them as adequate.

The film, while decidedly historical given its subject matter, did not wow many of the reviewers with its historicity. Most of the reviewers gave a passing comment on the myriad historical inaccuracies with a number of them devoting some time to discuss the more glaring errors. These were mostly places where Scorsese conflated events that did actually occur but were separated by years or decades, most clearly the Draft Riots of 1863 and the 1857 fight between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. The excessive level of violence and bloodshed was also called into question, a complaint that has been levied against many of Scorsese’s films. The reviewers, almost uniformly, forgave these trifles as invariable conditions of a historical film, realizing that Scorsese was not trying to make a documentary. The attention to detail in the set and costume design showed clearly that Scorsese was committed to accurately depicting 19th century New York City. Most critics seemed to give Gangs a thumbs-up, perhaps in spite of itself, its questionable historical accuracy and the incumbent behind-the-scenes issues.

Berardinelli, James. Review of Gangs of New York. ReelViews, 2002. http://www.reelviews.net/movies/g/gangs_ny.html
Berardinelli calls Gangs a "flawed motion picture," "with many of the sub-plots half-developed" and "times when the movie meanders and the psychological depth of two of the three principal characters" fails to satisfy. "There are some great individual scenes, and a tremendous performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, but the connecting material is mediocre," and ultimately "Gangs of New York fails to provoke an emotional reaction."
Bradshaw, Peter. Review of Gangs of New York. The Guardian 9 January 2003. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/jan/10/artsfeatures2
This was a very positive review in which the film's shortcomings were placed on "the egregious Miramax producer" who forced the film to be severely edited down for time constraints. Bradshaw nevertheless calls it a "flawed masterpiece" with "a thousand times more energy and life and sheer virility than anything else Hollywood has to offer." The film succeeds because "Scorsese thinks big, acts big, [and] films big" and because of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. Bradshaw calls Day-Lewis the "linchpin" of the film in this, his "triumphant return" to the screen. Playing a "terrifying career psychopath," he has a "terrifically evil presence" that anchored the film.
Corliss, Richard. "Have a very Leo Noel: The Gangs of New York. Time 23 December 2002: 66-67.
"Maybe nobody told Martin Scorsese the American film epic was a dead form," Corliss muses. Gangs, he says, "may be the epic's last gasp. If so, it is a gasp that sings, howls, like a grand tenor at an Irish wake." "Displaying an urgency and elegance unmatched by any other living auteur, Scorsese finds drama in visual contrast: a door in a dark, noisy room that is kicked open to reveal a silent, snow-laden street." "Gangs is the director's proclamation that all his movies about belligerent young men are modern-dress versions of a crucial melodrama that shaped urban America." The film is "congested, conflicted, entrancing achievement."
Denby, David. "For the Love of Fighting." New Yorker 23 December 2002: 166-69. http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/233142665/fulltext/140F0B47CEDD584E92/9?accountid=12043
"The movie is strange and muddled--a disorganized epic--but Day-Lewis, disporting himself with royal assurance, does what he can to hold it together." He's a consciously theatrical monster, and Day-Lewis--an actor playing an actor--returns to performing with a glee that he's never shown before." Despite this singular performance, the film fails to achieve greatness. "For all its labored realism, "Gangs" never comes alive as a dramatic conception"; it "is rarely exhilarating." Further, Denby questions the films historic accuracy as well as the decision to downplay the racial violence that surrounded the draft riots.
Ebert, Roger. Review of Gangs of New York. 20 December 2002. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gangs-of-new-york-2002
While Ebert notes that he does "not think this film is in the first rank of [Scorcese's] masterpieces," nevertheless he commends the film and calls it a "considerable achievement" for Scorsese. Ebert was especially impressed by the "astonishing sights" of some of the large battle scenes as well as the vivid portrayal of the characters, going so far as to call Bill the Butcher "one of the great characters of modern movies."
Edelstein, David. "Let It Bleed." Slate 20 December 2002. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2002/12/let_it_bleed.html
"The film in its current state cries out for a wider canvas, for more and longer scenes," as Harvey Weinstein is to blame for cutting nearly an hour of the film out. As a result characters were left undeveloped and plot points seemed abrupt or unprepared for. "In its present form, anyway, Day-Lewis upstages this whole bloody stew of a movie." It yearns to be "a bloody, wide-screen epic that mixes elemental stories of love and revenge with a vision of the larger historical forces that shaped the capitalist society we know today." Scorsese loses "control of the drama" and is unable to focus on "the universe outside its central triangle of movie stars and ham-fisted melodrama."
French, Philip. "Scorsese paints the town red." Guardian/Observer 11 January 2003. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/jan/12/philipfrench
In "the flawed masterpiece Gangs of New York," Scorsese once again plunges us into a dangerous environment peopled with internally complicated, fractured characters. Violence is central to the film, with blood being "the leitmotif and the overarching image of this savage movie." "Day-Lewis gives a gargantuan performance as the mad, charismatic Bill" and carries the film. Because of the severe editing the climactic moment of the film in which the plot is supposed to tie together seems instead "forced together"; "the two events do not seem happily yoked." "Nevertheless, this remains an astonishing achievement, a film with a passionate sense of life, by one of the greatest filmmakers at work today."
Hoberman, J. "Vice City." Village Voice 17 December 2002. http://www.villagevoice.com/2002-12-17/film/vice-city/
"Gangs of New York is a lavish folly that suffers from an odd downscale effect" brought on by extensive edits to the original film, producing the "rough beast" that we were presented. Day-Lewis's dialogue was "endless blather," and Bill's character failed to resonate. Likewise DiCaprio and Diaz are "perfectly adequate" but do not exceed this; "the more time spent with these young lovers, the less interesting they become." The climax seems "rudely truncated," and Scorsese is unable to bring his grand vision to life. "This movie was born to dominate the skyline, but it can't—it's overshadowed by its own aspirations."
Interview: Tyler Anbinder Discusses the Historical Accuracy of Martin Scorses'e New Film 'Gangs of New York'." All Things Considered 23 December 2002. http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/190097296/fulltext/140F0B47CEDD584E92/3?accountid=12043
We (literally) hear from author Tyler Anbinder on the historicity of Scorsese's film. As Anbinder is one of the preeminent scholars in this niche field, this is an atypical and prodigious resource for our purposes. On National Public Radio Anbinder sat down with an interviewer and critically analyzed where Scorsese adhered to and diverged from the actual historical record. Anbinder is generally positive, lauding Scorsese's efforts to capture the feeling and atmosphere of the time period. Scorsese's general thematic presentation is also commended, as Anbinder judged him to have captured the broad strokes adeptly. Throughout, Anbinder enumerates various instances where Scorsese misplaced events in history, pulled events together, or just generally got the detail wrong; however, by and large it was a favorable critique.
LaSalle, Mick. "Warring of the green: Scorsese gets his Irish up in 'Gangs of New York'." San Francisco Chronicle 20 December 2002. http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/Warring-of-the-green-Scorsese-gets-his-Irish-up-2710477.php
"For all the epic size and epic investment, Gangs of New York lacks the one quality that might have tipped it into greatness -- an epic grandeur. Though big in size, Gangs isn't big in ideas. The lavish setting just lends color to what turns out to be a very simple story." "It doesn't take long to realize that his Bill the Butcher is a mini-masterpiece," and Day-Lewis stands out starkly against his costars. "When Day- Lewis is onscreen, there's no other actor worth looking at." "Maybe the father-son gang story was too little and personal to hang an epic on. Or maybe some essential element didn't make the final edit; in any case, Gangs of New York is still something to see, and it has its impact."
McCrum, Robert. "Wanna be in our gang?" The Observer 23 November 2002. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/nov/24/history
A favorable review: "there is a kind of brutal poetry" to nineteenth-century New York City. Much of the review vividly recounts the "grimmer, backstage side" of New York, painting pictures "of mean streets and dark alleys, from Hell's Kitchen to the infamous Five Points." While saying comparatively little about the film itself, McCrum is verbose in discussing the historical subject and environment Scorsese attempts to reproduce, clearly supporting a film based on such a foundation.
Petrakis, John. "Mean Streets." Christian Century 18-31 December 2002: 40. http://search.proquest.com/pqrl/docview/217224760/fulltext/140F0B47CEDD584E92/12?accountid=12043
Petrakis is positive about the film, placing it firmly within the Scorsese tradition, focusing on "pain and suffering and, more to the point, martyrdom." Gangs succeeds in its depiction of the historical neighborhood but primarily in the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. His "performance is so powerful, so layered and ultimately so disturbing that it keeps everyone and everything else in its shadow." Near the end "Scorsese risks losing control of his grand vision," but ultimately he "is able to keep it all together."
Pierce, Nev. Review of Gangs of New York. BBC 9 January 2003. http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2002/12/10/gangs_of_new_york_2003_review.shtml
Gangs of New York "both astounds and enthralls, providing a riveting exploration of America's dark heart." "The violent gripping spectacle" is carried by a "phenomenal performance" by Day-Lewis and impressing turns by DiCaprio and Diaz. The story truly succeeds when the "simple tale of revenge escalates into a portrait of class, race and religious war." While it may not be considered alongside Scorsese's masterpieces, it is "a work of staggering ambition, grandeur and terrible beauty. In a word: majestic."
Queenan, Joe. "Big bad apple." The Guardian 10 January 2003. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/jan/11/features.joequeenan
Gangs of New York "is a generally entertaining film," despite being laughably historically inaccurate and "a bit confusing." Day-Lewis's performance, however, is singularly spectacular. It is a "tour de force" that "must be seen to be believed" and "completely and utterly dominates Scorsese's film in a way that only a few actors can."
Rainer, Peter. "Old-World Charm." New York XXXXXXXX http://nymag.com/nymetro/movies/reviews/n_8126/
"If the look of a movie were enough to guarantee greatness, Gangs of New York would be a masterpiece." "As a dramatic achievement, however, it is not quite so amazing." Scorsese shows us a meticulously crafted world, depicting an era of New York history unknown to us. Despite this rich, new world, the characters "are mostly traditional; they lack the richness to fill out the grandeur of the production design." Day-Lewis's performance is the exception to this, but even his "genius" doesn't save the story from being reduced in the end to an unsurprising "history lesson about our roots and the melting pot and what it means to be an American."
Scott, A. O. "To Feel A City Seethe." New York Times 20 December 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/20/movies/20GANG.html
"Gangs of New York is an important film as well as an entertaining one." "The director's great accomplishment . . . has been to bring to life not only the texture of the past but its force and velocity as well." "What we are witnessing is the eclipse of warlordism and the catastrophic birth of modern society." This was Scott's principle conclusion and one he thought gave the film a great deal of gravity. "Mr. Scorsese has made a near-great movie . . . I suspect that over time it will make up the distance."
Travers, Peter. Review of Gangs of New York. Rolling Stone 20 December 2002. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/gangs-of-new-york-20021220
"Gangs of New York is something better than perfect: It's thrillingly alive." It soars during the epic battle scenes, such as the one on which the film opens. "Stunningly shot by Michael Ballhaus and edited with a poet's eye by Thelma Schoonmaker, the scene knocks the breath out of you. It's the first of many." "Day-Lewis is a colossus" setting "the screen ablaze" with his performance that paces the microcosm, while Scorsese ties it into a larger story with his "sweep through Old New York at the height of the Civil War." "What Scorsese achieves in Gangs of New York is defiantly untrendy: a triumph of pure craft and passionate heart. You can wait around and hope, but you won't see this kind of epic filmmaking again."

See Also

Anbinder, Tyler. "Is Gangs of New York Historically Accurate?" Gotham Gazette 23 December 2002. http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/1380-is-gangs-of-new-york-historically-accurate

Ansen, David. Newsweek 14 January 2003.

Brown, Joshua. "The Gang's Not All Here." Common-Place 3.3 (2003). http://www.common-place.org/vox-pop/200304.shtml

Taubin, Amy. "Gangs of New York." Film Comment January-February 2003.