Old-World Charm

Killer Looks: Day-Lewis is Bill the Butcher and DiCaprio his protege.Photo: Mario Tursi

If the look of a movie were enough to guarantee greatness, Gangs of New York would be a masterpiece. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited epic, set mostly in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood in 1863, is designed with such poetic extravagance that it’s as if we were watching a vast collective memory. Scorsese’s New York has been scrupulously researched down to the last crevice and cobblestone, and yet we don’t feel, as we often do in big period epics, that everything has been manufactured for our inspection. (The voluminous sets were constructed at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, and the production designer was the incomparable Dante Ferretti.) As a piece of visionary historical re-creation, with nary a digital effect in sight, Gangs of New York is stunning, and it has the added bonus of being about an era that is virtually new to movies. As a dramatic achievement, however, it is not quite so amazing.

The film begins with an excruciatingly violent street rumble between the American-born Nativists, led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish Catholic immigrants led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In the ensuing mayhem, during which the street’s snows are reddened and severed ears and noses are favored as trophies of combat, Vallon’s young son, Amsterdam, witnesses the murder of his father by Bill. After sixteen years in the Hellgate House of Reform, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns in 1863 to Five Points and, his real identity a secret, infiltrates Bill’s gang with the sole intent of killing him. But Bill, who has no sons, grows fond of Amsterdam, especially after the boy saves him from an assassin. In one of the film’s sharpest scenes, Bill, an actual butcher when he isn’t ruling the roost, uses a carcass to demonstrate how to inflict mortal knife wounds. This is Bill’s way of being affectionate. For Amsterdam, vengeance is tempered by his need for a father figure. “It’s a funny thing being under the wing of a dragon,” he says. “It’s warmer than you think.” Before these two face their inevitable confrontation, we are put through a panorama of historical events ranging from the mass immigration of the Irish and the corruptions of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) to the 1863 Draft Riots, a conflagration lasting four days and nights. A great subject requires great characters and a large, unifying theme. The Godfather movies, to which this film may be compared in scope, offered a tragic vision of the American Dream. Gangs of New York, which was written by Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan, and Steve Zaillian is a far less expansive and complex emotional experience. Its characters – its heroes and villains – are mostly traditional; they lack the richness to fill out the grandeur of the production design. Scorsese is caught in a conceptual bind: He is trying to make a movie that is hyperbolic, almost hallucinatory, in its historical perceptions, and yet also realistic in human terms. Sergio Leone, in a movie like Once Upon a Time in America, was able to get around this problem by, in effect, making his characters as overscaled as their surroundings. Scorsese plays it straighter. And so, with one exception, his characters – including not only DiCaprio’s Amsterdam but also the orphaned thief Jenny (Cameron Diaz) he falls in love with, and his traitorous sidekick Johnny (Henry Thomas) – are the kind of people we’ve seen before in movies. The work of all these actors is deeply acceptable – and predictable.

The exception is Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher, who strides about like some kind of Kabuki arachnid in stovepipe hat and waistcoat, and who has a thick handlebar mustache and a glass eye with a bald eagle imprinted on it. The genius of Day-Lewis’s performance is that although he may look and sound like a cartoon meanie, his malice is chillingly real. Bill is a triumphant caricature who is all of a piece with the film’s high-style folklorism. The movie was inspired by The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury’s astonishing 1928 history of New York’s underworld, and Bill, who is partially based on a real person, seems to have bounded right out of its pages. In his own deranged way, this butcher is honorable; each year, he celebrates the killing of Priest Vallon as a tribute to a fellow king, and imagines himself to be a true American because his father died fighting the British and because he can’t abide foreign-born immigrants.I think we are meant to see in Bill not only the deep-seated and bloodcurdling intolerance that is at the core of the American experience but also the frontier spirit that, at best, is its greatness. This is a burdensome load for any role to carry, and Day-Lewis almost pulls it off. But in the end, the film can’t really support such a weight. What we’re left with has the patness of a history lesson about our roots and the melting pot and what it means to be an American.Scorsese often talks about moviemaking as if it were a religious calling. Gangs of New York is his mission to reconcile us with our violent past and achieve redemption. His instincts serve him better in the film’s closing moments, when he fades from Five Points into the modern-day cityscape. It’s a graceful way of showing that the imprint of those outlaw days is still upon us, and that the air is thick with phantoms.

Leonardo DiCaprio shows up again as the chief protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s breezily enjoyable but thin Catch Me If You Can. It’s based on the autobiographical book by Frank Abagnale Jr. about his four-year career in the mid-sixties as a master check forger who, beginning at age 16, also pretended to be a Pan Am co-pilot, a Harvard-trained physician, and a New Orleans attorney. The movie has a bright and colorful look appropriate to sixties pop and an amusing Road Runner–versus–Wile E. Coyote plot that pits Abagnale against dogged, dark-suited FBI agent Carl Hanratty, played with bureaucratic brio by Tom Hanks. We are lulled into believing that this pre-counterculture, pre-Vietnam America was a place where the innocent could more easily be bilked than in our own time. (More likely, the innocence remains; the bilking is just more sophisticated.) The real Abagnale was able to fool people because he was older-looking and prematurely gray, while DiCaprio, although he was 27 when he made the film, looks like a precocious teen. It’s difficult to buy the fact that so many people could be taken in by such a stripling, but in every other respect, DiCaprio is a shrewd casting choice: There’s an inscrutability to his boyish glamour that makes him something of a cipher; he may look like an open book, but he’s not at all easy to read.

Early on, in films like This Boy’s Life and Marvin’s Room, DiCaprio had a seething undercurrent that separated him from most fresh-faced juvenile actors. Spielberg doesn’t call upon DiCaprio to tap into that undercurrent and go beyond the blithe escapades of a kid con man, and the movie suffers for it. We are, after all, watching a movie about someone who relishes cheating people and treating them as dupes, and although Spielberg and his screenwriter, Jeff Nathanson, are careful to frame most of Frank’s victims unsympathetically, we’re still left feeling rather queasy. What’s missing in Frank is any trace of cruelty or dark guile. Spielberg explains him away as a misguided but well-meaning product of a suburban broken home – Frank’s down-on-his-luck-father is hauntingly well played by Christopher Walken – whose scams are meant to reconcile his divorced parents. This is well-tilled Spielbergian turf.Despite Spielberg’s periodic forays into darker realms, he may not have the comprehension of character required to do justice to someone like Frank Abagnale, who, after serving some prison time, was ultimately recruited as a fraud expert by the FBI and today is a highly successful entrepreneur in the security-systems field. (It’s as if his ultimate scam was to go straight.) To a lesser degree, and with much more at stake, Spielberg revealed a similar lack of comprehension of the dark side in his presentation of Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, who was also a species of con artist and who was made to seem righteously idealistic. I wish Spielberg hadn’t shelved his oft-announced movie project about his boyhood hero Charles Lindbergh; the aviator’s pro-Nazi sympathies would have challenged the director’s complacencies and stretched him as an artist. For his latest movie, Spielberg can’t be faulted for wanting to confect a simple entertainment after the heavy-going A.I. and Minority Report. The problem is, he’s chosen a hero who is far from simple.

The new Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is darker and more fight-filled than The Fellowship of the Ring, and more vauntingly scary, too. It doesn’t even begin with a recap of what came before: If you’re not already a Tolkien true believer, director Peter Jackson isn’t about to extend a helping hand. Jackson is essentially a horror maestro – he began his career in New Zealand making zombie movies like Dead Alive that were stupendously funny-icky – and he goes even further into gore this time around. When one of the scary-faced Uruk-hai (or was it an orc?) growls that humans look tasty, you look at the trembling hobbit in his sight lines and think to yourself, Well, come to think of it, they do. Still, Jackson has a genuine epic gift: Few filmmakers have ever given gross-outs such resplendence. There have been a number of drop-adds in the cast since The Fellowship of the Ring. Elijah Wood’s Frodo doesn’t have major screen time this go-round, but thankfully, there’s more of Viggo Mortensen’s staunch Aragorn and John Rhys-Davies’s hairball-ish dwarf Gimli, who, in the film’s astounding climactic battle scene at the Rohan fortress Helm’s Deep, is successfully tossed into a frothing phalanx of those pesky Uruks. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey has been resurrected as Gandalf the White, a distinct sartorial improvement. Liv Tyler’s elf Arwen is briefly back for another soft-focus reckoning with Aragorn (gauzy lyricism is not Jackson’s forte), and her Elvish, in addition to sounding once again like pidgin Finnish, now appears to carry traces of Yiddish and Apache, too.

I was glad to see Brad Dourif turn up as a sinister court adviser aptly named Wormtongue; not many actors can make their grinning skulls protrude so distinctively through their own thin flesh. There’s also a marvelous new addition called Treebeard, a walking, talking tree, who is the oldest living entity in Middle-Earth. Best is the near-naked, strangly voiced Gollum, once a Ringbearer, who promises to guide Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) to the Black Gates of Mordor. An actor named Andy Serkis plays Gollum, whose movements have been translated digitally – the result is easily the best digital creature ever put on film. This second installment in the trilogy ends with Gandalf intoning that the battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin. I’m pumped.

Behind the scenes of Scorsese’s new monster epic. Plus: The Real Gangs of New York City.

Gangs of New York
Directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz.

The Lord of the Rings
Directed by Peter Jackson; starring Viggo Mortensen and John Rhys-Davies.

Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

Old-World Charm