Written by longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks with Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, Gangs of New York begins in 1846 when the "natives" prevail in the first bloody battle of the Five Points, and Bill kills Amsterdam's father, Priest (Liam Nelson). After his father's death, Amsterdam is placed in a reform school and remains there until his release in 1862. Dedicated to little other than avenging his father, Amsterdam finds a way to insinuate himself into Bill's gang and soon emerges as the Butcher's protege. Ensconced in Bill's inner circle, Amsterdam takes considerable pleasure in the power and money he's able to command. Nonetheless, the script does not really explain why he waits so long to strike. He certainly possesses no compunctions against ruthless violence, and he definitely develops no complicated feelings of affection for his enemy.
As we wait for Amsterdam to act, two subplots develop. Amsterdam finds romance with a beautiful pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). Jenny was cared for by Bill as a child, but she grew up to become his lover. Meanwhile, we are made privy to both the local and national political issues of the era. In the city, the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine manipulates recent immigrants for votes to turn patronage into wealth. Bill hates immigrants, but he's hardly above selling his services as an enforcer to Tammany Hall leader Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent).
Outside the city, on battlefields south and west, the Civil War ravages America's young, and President Lincoln institutes the first draft to fill the ranks of the Union Army. The poor must serve, but the rich can buy an exemption for $300. As Amsterdam and Bill rally their supporters for the battle to decide their differences of religion and ethnicity, the incredibly violent draft riots threaten to reduce New York to rubble. Beside this uprising, the animosities between Amsterdam and Bill are so insignificant that the gangs of both take far more casualties from a naval bombardment and a counterinsurgent police strike aimed at draft rioters than either of their sides suffer at the hands of the other. And thus another of Scorsese's central points: from time immemorial, rather than unite in their common need and common humanity, the poor have fought each other over inconsequential differences.
Gangs of New York is bravura filmmaking with stunning production design by Dante Ferretti and haunting cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. One overhead shot of Bill reclining with three mistresses invokes the painting of Rubens. A helicopter shot of battlefield snow turning red with the blood of the slain sears itself into the viewer's memory. A series of dissolves transforms the Manhattan skyline from three- and four-story 19th century wooden tenements to a progression of concrete, glass and steel skyscrapers. In the distance of the last shot rise the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And thus we are reminded how ethnicity and religion may change but the hatred and the violence continue. As if charting the progress of the human race, the film starts in an underground cave and rises through levels of horror, then bursts into an open landscape of decay where no paradise has ever existed.
You can mark your Oscar scorecard early with numerous nominations for Gangs of New York, including, almost certainly, a best actor nod for Day-Lewis and maybe one for DiCaprio, too. I approve of all of this. And I commend Scorsese for daring to make a picture of such epic scale and then to fill it with ruminations about the nature of humankind and our tortured relationship with God. Still, I yearn for something in this picture that is almost always missing from Scorsese's films: central characters to identify with and care about. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are among the best films of the last quarter century. But just as is true here, all of them stimulated our intellect but never touched our heart.