Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz

 

Gangs of New York was released at a time when I was probably watching Martin Scorsese movies more regularly than at any other time in my life, but for some reason I didn’t see it in the theaters. In fact, I didn’t see Gangs of New York until it was already a couple of years old and I purchased a used copy of it on DVD at the Exchange in Pittsburgh, in 2005. In high school, I gained a strong affinity for Scorsese’s cinema, but I largely only skimmed the surface. I watched Taxi Driver and Goodfellas obsessively, and Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and Casino were on a list of movies that I professed to admire but hadn’t watched closely yet, but the rest of Scorsese’s deep filmography remained an unknown to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to see Gangs of New York in the theater when it was released, since it didn’t share obvious affinities with Scorsese’s crime and mafia related output, or maybe I was just scared off by the film’s daunting run time, or maybe I just didn’t have any friends who were interested in seeing it. Whatever the reason, I never saw Gangs of New York on a big screen, and though it’s become a movie that I like quite a bit, I’m disappointed that I robbed myself of the opportunity to experience its larger-than-life sets and set pieces in a theater environment. Gangs of New York is often thought of as a lesser entry into Scorsese’s filmography, despite it receiving a slew of award nominations and decent critical acclaim upon its release, and I can’t really argue that as a movie it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Scorsese’s best work. In spite of its flaws, however, Gangs of New York is still a big, engaging, and entertaining movie, and one that seems to have gained in importance and relevance in light of current societal realities in America.

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Based on a historical recounting of the history of New York City and the gangs, both street gangs and political gangs, that ran it in the mid-19th century, Gangs of New York is a tale of the savage and brutal mechanics behind the development of one of the greatest cities in the world. The film explores New York’s Five Points neighborhood through the eyes of Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio), a young Irish immigrant who witnessed his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), die at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) in a brutal gang fight when he was just a boy. Amsterdam spent his adolescence in a reform home, but when he is a young man he returns to the Five Points, sworn to avenge his father’s death. In order to do so, Amsterdam gains Bill’s trust and becomes his close ally, all the while planning to one day turn on Bill. Through his relationship with Bill, Amsterdam is introduced to the power structures and the powerful men that run New York City, and he learns that Bill may be the most powerful of them all, holding politicians, police, and the people of the Five Points in his tightly clenched fist. Amsterdam gains power and notoriety through his association with Bill and he becomes something of a celebrity figure in the Five Points, seen as an up-and-comer in the power structure of the neighborhood. The two enemies share an uneasy alliance through much of the film, but when Bill discovers Amsterdam’s true identity, they must square off in bloody combat, their personal vendetta backlit by the raging fires of the infamous New York City draft riots of 1863.

This is an obvious oversimplification of the plot of Gangs of New York, but as I mentioned before, the movie is a sprawling epic that contains multiple subplots and diversions, many of which are ancillary to the story of Amsterdam and Bill, but which give the film incredible richness and depth. While I’ve heard some people say that they feel that Gangs of New York doesn’t justify its lengthy runtime, or that the romantic subplot between Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz’s female pickpocket, Jenny, is unwarranted and unnecessary, I can largely forgive the movie its indulgences. Gangs of New York is a historical epic, and, as such, it should be expected to be in-depth, dense, and bombastic, and Scorsese does a masterful job of balancing great action, suspense and intrigue, and human interest, all while telling a compelling tale about the roots of America and Americanism. The Five Points of the film is alive and vibrant, with sets built at Italy’s famed Cinecitta studios standing in for the 19th century streets of New York City. The camera navigates these sets and streets with aplomb, capturing nooks and crevices of society otherwise unnoticed, bringing them to life with Scorsese’s typical visual acumen and virtuosic style.

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Small moments and more intimate scenes in the film allow Scorsese to really show off some of his trademark tracking shots and his mastery of setting and lighting, such as the absolutely gorgeous candlelit dance scene in which Jenny and Amsterdam finally submit to their obvious initial attraction to one another. The camera becomes a character in the scene, perfectly partnering with the twirling couples, moving in and out of the crowd on a dolly, and capturing the woozy, off-kilter nature of a rare night of revelry and respite for the tired and oppressed working class citizens of the Five Points. Though it might not be the most integral scene to furthering the film’s primary plotlines, it’s an essential break for the characters and for the audience, and it’s a moment of pure cinematic beauty.

The most obvious and immediate example of Scorsese’s visual genius in Gangs of New York is on display right from the film’s outset. The film opens with a lengthy tracking sequence that introduces most of the film’s principal characters, as well as the world that the film depicts, one that is defined by might and cunning, and sheer force of will. The shot follows Priest Vallon and a very young Amsterdam as they prepare for a bloody battle between the gang of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, led by Vallon, and a xenophobic, Nativist gang led by Bill the Butcher. Though it isn’t constructed as a single tracking shot, like some of Scorsese’s most famous sequences, the camera moves along with the boy and his father, panning and tracking to pick out the faces of important supporting characters who will fight alongside Vallon. The edits are well placed, and concealed somewhat by useful sound/image matching with the martial drum and fife tune underscoring the scene. Intensity builds as Scorsese introduces whip pans and cut-aways into the montage, picking out the grim faces and fearsome homemade weapons wielded by the Dead Rabbits as they march out of their subterranean base of operations. Fires burn alongside the stone walls and characters engage in strange, ritualistic dances, giving the setting an otherworldly feeling. As Vallon and his army emerge from the caves, the camera tilts up, revealing them to be beneath a bustling common house peopled by the denizens of the Five Points: degenerates, outcasts, and thieves, all living and existing on top of one another in a constant state of chaos and squalor. When the door is burst open and the camera tracks outside of the building, revealing an empty, snowy courtyard, the music drops from the soundtrack entirely and the audience is left on seat’s edge, anticipating the battle to come. The battle is a thing of violent beauty, but it is this initial sequence that truly expresses the efficiency of Scorsese’s visual language. He reveals a distinctive setting, implies character relationships, and the stakes of the cinematic universe into which the audience has been dropped, all through the use of music, montage, and camera movement in just a few short moments. It’s a sequence that can stand up to nearly in in Scorsese’s long and accomplished body of work.

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The film’s veracity and impact is also benefited by the incredible cast that was assembled to portray the residents of the Five Points. Obviously the film’s leads are accomplished and noteworthy, but the depth of this ensemble cast is one of Gangs of New York’s biggest strengths. Great actors such as John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson all show up in secondary roles. Broadbent’s Boss Tweed is appropriately corrupt and despicable, while Reilly takes a rare turn as an unlikable character. He does bring a level of complexity to the character of Happy Jack, who began the film standing beside Priest Vallon but who becomes a police officer, effectively working to support Bill’s stranglehold over the Five Points, as do many of the former Dead Rabbits, putting their own personal survival before their allegiances to their dead leader. Gleeson is McGloin, and though he begins the film as a mercenary, he proves to be one of the few characters who remains loyal to the ideals of the Dead Rabbits and of dignity for immigrants, but Gleeson plays him as a shady background character, potentially duplicitous, until his true nature is revealed late in the film. Though his performance is incredibly brief, with his character dying in the film’s first scene, Neeson brings a gravitas to his portrayal of Priest Vallon that lends a credence to his son’s and others’ dedication to the preservation of his character’s ideals. These secondary roles all work to create a rich tapestry of characters inhabiting the Five Points, giving the neighborhood of the film life and vigor.

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Of course, for all the important work that the film’s supporting cast do, their performances are all, naturally, overshadowed by Day-Lewis’s iconic and memorable portrayal of the cruel, powerful Bill Cutting. By now, Day-Lewis is widely recognized as one of the best actors of his, or any, generation, and though he had been turning in brilliant performances for over a decade by the time he starred in Gangs of New York, I think that it was this performance that largely cemented his status as an icon. I had seen My Left Foot and The Crucible in high school, but it was Day-Lewis’s work in creating the character of Bill the Butcher that truly signaled his greatness to me. Stories abound of the actor’s persistence to maintain character during a shoot, adhering to the mannerisms, accents, and affectations of his roles at all hours of the day, and that dedication shines through in every second of screen time that he has in Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis steals every scene that he’s in, chewing the scenery and spitting verbose prose in an unmistakable and unforgettable proto-New York City accent. He seethes and rages, he cajoles and charms, and all the while he maintains a fearsome physical presence that hints at his character’s capacity for lethal violence. Bill the Butcher is an all-time great villain, and it’s impossible to imagine him being played by anyone else. Day-Lewis breathes life and menace into the character, achieving a total transformation that would prefigure the all-consuming performances that he would turn in later in his career. Though his xenophobic and racist rhetoric and penchant for abuse and violence are abhorrent, Bill the Butcher’s charms make him an irresistible villain, if not a relatable figure. A lesser actor might not have tapped into the complexity of Bill Cutting, playing him as either purely evil or as a grandstanding raconteur, but the devil is in the details, and Day-Lewis creates a nuanced, attractive devil out of a performance dominated by attention to minutiae.

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Understandably, DiCaprio and Diaz don’t fare as well in the shadow of the powerhouse performance that Day-Lewis turns in. Though he provides a serviceable performance as Amsterdam, DiCaprio was still attempting to grow into more adult roles after spending much of the 1990s firmly entrenched as America’s teen heartthrob. His chops would improve in later collaborations with Scorsese and as he became more comfortable with his own artistic voice, but DiCaprio in Gangs of New York is still a bit raw, and his acting lacks a sense of naturalism. For whatever reason, I’ve also felt that DiCaprio’s vocal cadence isn’t suitable to lengthy, expository voiceover tracks, and Gangs of New York relies heavily on his narration. This could be a knock against Scorsese, as well, whose trademark voiceover narration I often find well done despite my overall distaste for the technique as a storytelling device, but in Gangs of New York it largely feels unnecessary and overwritten.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Diaz as the film’s love interest and female lead, but I actually think that she does a fine job. She has a natural wryness to her star persona that plays well with Jenny’s penchant for petty crime and her playful courtship of Amsterdam, and Diaz is also more than effective when searching out the emotional depths of the character. Though she doesn’t often shine in the movie, she makes the most of her moments in the film, and isn’t given as much material to work with as either of the male leads in building up her character. Jenny feels more like a glorified supporting character than a third co-lead, through no real fault of Diaz’s. I think that she and DiCaprio acquit themselves fairly admirably, but it would be impossible for either of these young actors to really emerge as a standout in a movie that is so thoroughly dominated by Day-Lewis.

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Gangs of New York isn’t a movie that I get to rewatch very often, given my penchant for only really liking to watch movies in a single sitting, and its long runtime frequently being prohibitive of that practice. I think I’ve probably seen it four times, including watching it on the Fourth of July in preparation to write this post, and it has always struck me as a film that speaks to Scorsese’s ongoing later-career interest in depicting how powerful men and their belief systems have formed the idea of Americanness. These themes stretch back to his crime films like Goodfellas and Casino, which both explicitly position themselves as commentaries on the shape of the American dream, but I think that it becomes even more explicit in films like Gangs of New York and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think that it’s fairly clear from his cinematic output that Scorsese has a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature, choosing, as he does, to highlight the seedier and more vicious elements of the human existence. In later films, he begins to expand that line of thinking out to examinations of American society and history, as a whole, and his outlook is no more favorable. In Gangs of New York, the very idea of Americanness is at the heart of the central conflict, with Vallon and the rest of the film’s immigrants attempting to stake their claim to a new identity in their chosen home against the wishes of Nativists like Bill the Butcher. This conflict is all set against the backdrop of the Civil War, a conflict that challenged the very notion of a national character for the young United States of America, and the film sees several characters, most prominently Bill, make impassioned speeches against the Union cause and against the emancipation of African-American slaves. Bill the Butcher as the film’s central character and his catalytic force in the narrative embodies and expresses these most savage and base fears and prejudices and the New York City that he attempts to influence and form in his image is a place that is heavily informed by his xenophobia, racism, and authoritarian nature. I think that Scorsese would posit that these virtues are, in many ways, at the core of the history of the American nation.

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It isn’t difficult to see why watching this film on Independence Day felt, for me, ironic, and why it also seems so totally prescient in 2018. Many of the struggles that are depicted in the film seem to be emerging as major narratives in the ongoing discussion of what it means to be an American in the 21st century. First and foremost, the unambiguous xenophobia and racism expressed by Bill and the film’s other Nativist characters has persisted for centuries in America, and has now emerged as a cornerstone in major mainstream political discourse. The face of immigration has certainly changed over the 150 years since the events depicted in Gangs of New York, but the conversation pertaining to closing borders to ensure the “purity” of the American character is exactly the same, and is couched in the same racist and exclusionary rhetoric that is on display in the film. The irony of a group of white, Anglo- settlers calling themselves Native to the Americas is an exclusionary argument still in use today that misses the point that anyone who is non-Indigenous can’t claim to have a birthright to Americanness, but it is the argument that forms the central basis of a form of economic and social White Supremacy that are hard baked into the American character. The roots of this attitude extend much further into history than the period depicted in Gangs of New York, but it is not by accident that Scorsese has selected a period of fraught racial turmoil to examine the formations of the American identity.

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The film also depicts the corruption and vice that were central to New York City’s civic governance by featuring Boss Tweed, the Tammany Hall political machine, and their ties to a criminal underworld that helped to prop up their status and ensure their political and social dominance. Throughout human history a desire for power and status has led humans to corruption and to choose strange allies. New York City in the mid-19th century certainly wasn’t the first or last locality to open itself up to this sort of political corruption, but the levels of civic betrayal and political ruthlessness and operational incompetence on display in the film, and which are apparently factually accurate, are astounding. The film depicts volunteer fire departments run by warring civic political factions that get so wrapped up in preventing each other from gaining credit for putting out the fire that they allow a building to burn to the ground. This level of ineptitude and hubris could only bring to mind the current political landscape in America, where corruption and deceit seem to be the order of the day, and service to the electorate is an unfortunate hindrance to the acquisition of capital at their expense. In the Super-PAC and special interest era of American politics, it feels more than ever that politicians and corporate structures are inextricably wedded in a marriage that aims to keep the non-elite from gaining any political power or capital. Though the disenfranchisement and squalor shown in the Five Points is extreme, the economic striation currently on display in America is not far off from that reality. Though Scorsese couldn’t have foreseen the levels of blatant graft and corruption that American politics have descended to barely 15 years after the film’s release, there’s no denying the parallels the film’s gilded era political machinations have to today’s political circus.

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Gangs of New York probably doesn’t rate up with the top tier of Scorsese’s filmography, but it does mark an important shift in his focus at the beginning of the 21st century and a return to form after a couple of less-than-great efforts to close out the 20th century. It’s a film that has largely been remembered as a mixed bag defined by an all-time great performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, but I think that it offers much more than that for modern viewers. Cinematically, it offers some of Scorsese’s most painterly compositions, and it’s obviously a deep well of his signature visual style, plus it also features one of the earliest performances from adult Leonardo DiCaprio that pointed towards the future quality of his performances. Socially and culturally, it’s an important film that I think will remain relevant as long as Americanness is so readily defined along lines of race and class. It’s a movie that seeks to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” and it depicts the deadly struggle on many sides to secure the right to uphold the proper definition of Americanness. This is still a debate that rages on today, perhaps even more fiercely than it has in previous eras, and for that reason alone watching Gangs of New York is a must in 2018.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Dir. Michael Cimino

Written by: Deric Washburn

Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage

 

The Deer Hunter stands as a landmark of 1970s filmmaking, winning critical and audience acclaim, and enduring throughout the years as one of the representative filmic explorations of the Viet Nam War and its effects on individuals and on American society, as a whole. The film is a thoughtfully crafted ensemble drama that goes further than many films of the time to depict the lasting horrors of war, and the mental scars that stayed with American soldiers long after they had returned home from Viet Nam. The Deer Hunter was a must see for me when I was a teen, as I was a big proponent of 1970s American films, the movement that is often referred to as the New Hollywood, and this film is often seen as one of the defining films of the movement. The movie has remained on my shelf for all these years since, going largely unwatched. However, when I sat down to watch the film again, over a decade since my last viewing, I was struck by the way that it exists in my head as a film of impressions. The Deer Hunter’s iconic scenes are instantly memorable: its Viet Nam scenes are gritty and intense, while the scenes back home in rural Pennsylvania are light and airy, with an undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia. The interstitial segments of the film were hazier, but they were ultimately the moments that made the film for me upon this viewing. The Deer Hunter’s cinematic climaxes are epic, but it’s the quieter moments that have been resonating with me over the last few days as I’ve turned the film over in my mind.

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The Deer Hunter opens in the late 1960s in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a mill town just south of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River. The film follows three young men, Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Stevie (Savage), as they prepare to leave their home in the rust belt for deployments in Viet Nam. The film takes its time getting the principles to the war, with Cimino carefully establishing a sense of place in Clairton, and introducing the viewer to the protagonists’ friends and families, as well as their way of life in this typical working class American town. Much of the film’s first act is taken up with a beautifully shot wedding scene, in which the relationships between the friends is established, as well as their anxieties on the outset of setting off for war. Cimino uses these early scenes to establish a holy triumvirate of family, God, and country that rules the lives of his characters, informing their sense of identity. When the film finally arrives in Viet Nam, the pace and intensity are ratcheted up significantly, with all three men being captured by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian roulette, as their sadistic captors revel in their misery. While these scenes are some of The Deer Hunter’s most memorable, the Viet Nam section of the film is actually quite brief, with Mike quickly leading a daring escape from the makeshift prison. While he and Stevie eventually return stateside, attempting to adjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war, Nick is pulled further into a seedy world of underground betting, where human life is devalued and thrown away. Although Nick is the character who is most obviously lost to his experience in Viet Nam, by the film’s end, it’s clear that all of these characters, even the ones who stayed home during the war, have lost something.

This film is an epic in every sense of the word. It is over three hours in length, and sets out to depict the ravages of war, not just on the individual, but on society as a whole. Cimino famously clashed with producers and his studio about the film’s runtime and its controversial, graphic, and intimate depictions of violence, but ultimately the film that he delivered feels important and necessary in its scope. The Deer Hunter has the impact that it does precisely because Cimino takes his time to establish a sense of place and normalcy early in the film through the scenes set in Clairton. Without the deliberate pacing of the film’s first third, the overall psychological and societal devastation that the Viet Nam war has on these characters wouldn’t be as profound. The locations, the traditions, and the people in these scenes will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in small town America. Cimino revels in showing these working class traditions up close, dropping in on intimate moments in both churches and bars, letting his camera casually investigate the culture of this particular Southwest Pennsylvania hamlet. The lengthy wedding scene that dominates the film’s first act is a beautifully shot celebration of this type of specific small town tradition. Traditional conservative values of religious piety and family togetherness are fully on display, and traditional gender roles and machismo are reinforced throughout the scene, but cracks start to show in the façade of traditionalism through the anxieties that Stevie, Nick, and, especially, Mike, begin to subtly express regarding their impending deployment. As the wedding reception continues and the men get drunker, their reservations about leaving their familiar homes for a killing field on the other side of the globe become ever more apparent, acted out demonstratively against a backdrop of ostentatiously draped American flags. The film’s opening section lays the groundwork of normalcy that will be eroded by the toll that the Viet Nam war takes on all of the characters.

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When the film abruptly shifts its focus to Viet Nam, the pace quickens and the intensity is ratcheted up, dropping the audience in country immediately before Mike, Nick, and Stevie are captured and held as POWs by the Viet Cong. While the cast does good work early in the film depicting the internal turmoil that the characters are experiencing regarding their deployment, De Niro and Walken, in particular, shine in the Viet Nam segments. De Niro plays Mike with a determination bordering on insanity, born of a promise that he made to see his friends home safe from the war. The intensity of his performance is matched and exceeded by Walken, who internalizes the trauma that his character has experienced, and who plays Nick as a shell of a man in the film’s second half. While he doesn’t play Nick with the outwardly demonstrative aggression of De Niro’s Mike or the histrionic emotional register of Savage’s Stevie, Walken’s Nick is unforgettable, hollow and haunted. His characteristically stilted line delivery benefits this performance, as well, as Nick seems to be communicating on a different emotional and cognitive level than the characters around him. All three of the actors are tasked with giving dynamic performances that require them to portray genuine celebration and happiness during the film’s beginning and slowly descending into emotional vacancy by the film’s end. They all deliver admirably, making clear the subtle shifts in personality and emotionality that the trauma of imprisonment and the constant threat of death has rendered in their characters.

The supporting cast provides solid work around the film’s stars, as well. The three protagonists leave behind them a network of friends and family in Clairton, and the film’s third act, with Mike’s return home from the war, shows the ways that the war has changed people on the home front. A very young Meryl Streep plays Linda, Nick’s, and eventually Mike’s, girlfriend. Initially, the character was poorly scripted, and Cimino encouraged Streep to flesh the character out, bringing her own ideas and feelings into the performance. Streep’s talent is obvious, as she’s able to easily convey without words the sort of pained longing that war brides must always experience. Linda has to stay strong, working her job at the Giant supermarket, and keeping up the house that she, Nick, and Mike shared, without any knowledge of if or when her lover might return. When Mike finally does return home, it’s obvious that his time away has seen Linda go from a happy, smiling young woman to a ball of frayed nerves. Streep’s performance is full of the little details that communicate more information about a character than voice over or monologue ever can. The way that she clings to Mike’s arm when he walks her to work, or the way that she perches in her chair after all the guests have left from Mike’s aborted homecoming party give a window into the quiet suffering that her character has had to endure. John Cazale is equally strong in his final performance. He plays Stan, a friend who didn’t go to war with Mike, Nick, and Steve, and who can never really understand the experiences that they’ve shared. Stan’s blustery bravado and penchant for pistol-toting provide a screen for the fact that he was too cowardly to go to war like his friends. Cazale’s cocksure performance belies the fact that his health was rapidly deteriorating from cancer. He wouldn’t live to see the film’s completion, but his final performance offers a nuanced look at the crisis of American masculinity during the 1970s. Stan is a typical working class American man of his time, attempting to paper over his personal inadequacies with a hard-drinking, hard-headed lifestyle, while at the same time, the nation as a whole was struggling to reconfigure its own identity in the face of military embarrassment abroad and societal upheaval and the beginning of the end of American industrial dominance at home.

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More than just a film about war or violence, The Deer Hunter is really an elegy for a way of life that was rapidly coming to an end at the close of the 1970s. Real life towns like Clairton all over the rust belt were beginning to die out, as steel mills and factories closed, and the livelihood of the American worker was challenged. The trauma of war may have broken Nick, and driven him down a rabbit hole of destruction and nihilism in Viet Nam, but Mike’s difficulty in assimilating to civilian life shows that Nick may have never been able to come home anyway. The town that they left wasn’t the same one that Mike returns to at the film’s end, and the prospects for him finding peace and meaning in the future seem bleak. The Deer Hunter’s final scene is beautiful, as Nick’s family and friends gather together to mourn his passing, and they all join in a slow, mournful rendition of “God Bless America,” as they share a meal together. Though it’s Nick that they’re ostensibly mourning, they are also recognizing the passing of a way of life, a societal sea change. The war is the catalyst for change in the film, but it’s also symptomatic of a larger shifting of values and lifestyles both in the film, and in the society into which it was released in 1978. The final scene’s tone is nostalgic, but also cynical, as if Cimino recognized the American dream had long since died out, and the patriotism expressed by his characters as they sing “God Bless America,” is an attempt to grasp at the remaining straws of normalcy.

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The Deer Hunter is a difficult movie. The strains of its production and the fights between Cimino and his studio are apparent when watching the film. I don’t mean that the end result seems flawed or complicated as a result, but that the tension and passion involved in creating this film are palpable in the final cut. Ultimately, it seems that Cimino was able to keep much of what his studio deemed objectionable in the final cut, and The Deer Hunter is a better film for it. It’s a film that attempts to depict one of the most fraught and difficult portions of American history, and its broad scope allows it to present the central problems of the period in multiple lights. The Deer Hunter is unique among war films in the amount of attention that it pays to the home front, and the parallels that it draws between war and overall societal downfall. The film is doubly difficult in that it doesn’t provide any real answers to the societal problems that it documents, instead leaving its viewer with a profound sense of sadness and cynicism. However, it is a film that is well worth watching. Viewers sitting down to enjoy a war movie might be turned off by the film’s initial hesitance to deliver on the promise of action, but to really appreciate The Deer Hunter, you have to get a sense of the entire tapestry that Cimino has woven.

Alexander

Alexander (2004)

Dir. Oliver Stone

Written by: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis

Starring: Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto

 

I have owned the DVD of Oliver Stone’s Alexander director’s cut for over ten years. In that time, I have viewed it exactly once, shortly after purchasing it in the spring of 2006 at the Blockbuster on Forbes Avenue during a sale shortly before the store closed. While rewatching Alexander for this project, I was reminded of the reasons that I had never bothered to go back to it after that initial viewing. The film is simply a mess. It doesn’t work on any level. It is too dull and tedious to work as an action film, too shallow to work as a historical drama, and too conventional to work as the art film that Stone badly wants it to be. While Alexander is certainly beautiful to look at, its interminable length and poor acting make it a misery to sit through.

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Alexander is a swords and sandals epic that traces the life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) from birth to death, focusing largely on his conquest of much of the known world in his 20s and 30s. Alexander’s life is related to a scribe by an aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and the film proceeds as a fairly typical Oliver Stone biopic. In fact, I was reminded of Stone’s Nixon at times while I was watching Alexander. The subjects of both films are men who are convinced of the greatness of their own destinies, obsessed with obtaining power, and who are ultimately consumed and brought down by their desire for power. Where Nixon succeeds and Alexander fails, however, is in making its subject a relatable and even, at times, sympathetic character. Perhaps by necessity of its setting in Greek antiquity, rather than feeling like the story of a real historical figure, Alexander feels like mythmaking. While there’s nothing wrong with mythologizing a historical figure, that mythmaking both robs Alexander of his relatability as a human character, and is at odds with Farrell’s angsty, dead-serious portrayal of Alexander the Great.

It isn’t just Farrell who turns in a lacking performance, unfortunately. Alexander must feature one of the most squandered assemblages of talent ever in a single film. Hopkins is largely reduced to the role of a voice-over narrator, appearing in only a handful of brief scenes, in which he does little besides dictate his voice-over narration to an on-screen scribe. Angelina Jolie, as Alexander’s mother Olympias, is an Oedipal seductress who is given little to do on screen besides pout and smolder. Her role as a major influencer on Alexander’s life and as a central schemer in the machinations that lead to the death of King Philip (Val Kilmer), Alexander’s father, seem unearned. Similarly, Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto are both underused, as Alexander’s wife and (not so) secret lover, respectively. In fact, the only performance in the film that stood out to me was that of Kilmer as King Philip. Kilmer gained 50 pounds for the role, and he lets his physicality do the heavy lifting for him in the performance. It stands in stark contrast to Farrell’s verbose, manic Alexander and Jolie’s subdued Olympias.

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Despite its many flaws, there are some things to like about Alexander. As I mentioned, the film is often breathtakingly beautiful. If the film’s casting budget largely feels wasted, its special effects and filming budget do not. Stone’s recreation of ancient Greece and Babylon is beautiful, and it really works. The sets and costuming are detailed and beautiful to look at, and they go a long way to lending it credence as a history. The large scale battles that are featured in the film, especially Alexander’s first victory, are excellently shot, blending overhead shots of mass troop formation with close-up shots of visceral hand-to-hand combat.  The film’s real world locations are also beautifully filmed, with the final battle in India standing out in particular. The lush greens of the Indian jungle stand out richly in contrast to the film’s existing color palette which is dominated by reds and golds. It’s a shame that Stone can’t reign in some of his more experimental tendencies during that final battle, opting to color shift the film halfway through the scene, because it takes away from a set piece that is working, visually, and serves as a reminder of the self-indulgence that the whole film is suffering from.

Upon its release in late 2004, Alexander was panned critically and bombed spectacularly at the domestic box office, returning just under $35 million against a $155 million dollar budget. International box office receipts would make the film a very modest financial success, and the film would go on to have great success in the home video market, with four separate cuts of the film being released by 2013. I have only seen the 2005 director’s cut of the film, but I can only imagine that the two later cuts (the “Final Cut” and the “Ultimate Cut”) would be even more interminable than the 2005 version, as they are both nearly four hours long. Ultimately, these additional cuts of the film are indicative of the extreme self-indulgence that hamstrings Alexander in general. Stone falls in love with his own story, and too often opts to tell rather than show. As a result, its action set pieces, while enjoyable, are too few and far between, causing the film to feel like a historical reenactment. However, the film is unsuccessful in that regard as well, because even after spending nearly three hours with the subject, I didn’t feel that I came away with any larger understanding of who Alexander the Great really was as a person. The personal details that could have fleshed out Alexander, making him a well-rounded protagonist, and making for a more interesting and successful film in general, are largely glossed over or left to insinuation.

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It’s a shame that Alexander doesn’t make for a better film, because the building blocks are there for something more entertaining and engaging. With a little more editorial oversight, Alexander could have been an effective historical action film; with better casting and a more personal (though probably less historically accurate) treatment of its subject, it could have been an interesting biopic of one of ancient history’s most important figures. Without either of those things, the end result is a bloated historical epic that is often content to meander from one life event to the next, failing to provide a more personal context for Alexander. Apparently, the “Final Cut,” released in 2007, attempts to rectify some of these shortcomings and includes a great deal of footage examining Alexander’s sexuality and his relationship with Hephaistion (Leto), as well as his relationship with both of his parents. Unfortunately, I have only seen the director’s cut, and don’t have the patience to sit through Alexander another time to find out if Stone’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too by extending the film’s runtime by nearly an hour is worth it.