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Ganged Up

Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" recalls the birth of a city and the violence that defined it.

11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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The movie doesn't shy away from the ugliness of those six days in July, where the primary victims of the riots were the African Americans. This is Scorsese at his best, creating an atmosphere of unbearable tension. Just when the air is perfectly still, a window on 5th Avenue is shattered, the aristocrats inside scattering for cover. The pace is frenetic as Scorsese keeps returning to a police station telegraph, tapping nonstop, alerting all units to the latest outbreaks of violence, from 5th Avenue to Lexington to Wall Street. And finally, as the police can no longer contain the riots, the armies of the Union arrive.

All told, some two thousand men, women, and children died during the Draft Riots, though no exact number was ever tallied. Most of the casualties were the rioters themselves, while an undetermined number of African Americans also perished (some drowned in the East and Hudson rivers, and eighteen were hanged by the mob). Property damage amounted to a staggering $5 million.

But despite such dramatic filmmaking, word of mouth about the film hasn't been too favorable. This is mainly because of Leonardo DiCaprio (or "DiCrapio" as one person told me), whose starpower draws teenaged girls but can also be a turn off for adults. At the same time, young girls may not want to sit through this historical epic the way they sat time and again through "Titanic." Romance isn't the dominant theme here. Add to this the professional criticism, which generally hasn't been kind, and "Gangs" may not go boffo at the box office--and it will undoubtedly be crushed by the new Lord of the Rings installment, "The Two Towers," when both open this weekend.

This would be a shame. Scorsese has spent years on this project and more time and money than on previous ventures. It was something he felt compelled to do since he purchased the movie rights to the book "The Gangs of New York" back in the 1970s. And the film is remarkably faithful to Herbert Asbury's 1928 bestseller--though there have been arguments ever since over what in the book is fact and what is urban myth. Nevertheless, the picture painted by Scorsese is impressive, and not just because of the incredible set design. It conveys a sense of massive change that was sweeping the city--a demographic catastrophe because of the massive Irish influx that led to the melting pot's boiling over and ultimately to the Draft Riots.

Meanwhile, the movie, its director, and Daniel Day-Lewis have already been nominated for Golden Globes. And Daniel Day-Lewis will most likely receive an Oscar nomination for his stellar performance. But Scorsese, who has never won an Oscar for Best Director, will probably not win this time around.

Then again, the Academy might feel bad and award him after unforgivably passing him over in the past. After all, was Kevin Costner really a better director in "Dances With Wolves" than Scorsese was in "Goodfellas"?

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.