Review: The Many Saints of Newark

With The Many Saints of Newark, “the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late sixties, early seventies in New Jersey, both black and white,” David Chase told interviewer Alan Sepinwall with Rolling Stone in August. This provides a clear mission statement for the intended plot and themes of the film. While I think that goal is clear enough in the final product, it still is fundamentally an origin story, in part for Tony, but also in part for the entire Sopranos series.

In that same interview, Chase expressed some clear frustrations about the project: that he was not ultimately able to direct, that the movie was released immediately on HBO Max alongside the theatrical release, and that the movie was marketed as A Sopranos Story and as an origin story for Tony. But he also made clear that he pushed back on actual changes to the movie itself, and he said that he did not add more to Tony’s plot despite studio pressure and the remarkable ability of Michael Gandolfini to embody his late father’s appearance and mannerisms. So I think it’s safe to say that The Many Saints of Newark is more or less the movie that Chase as writer and one of the producers, cowriter Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor set out to make.

All that said, it is not possible to separate this movie from The Sopranos. It’s not just a gangster movie. One of the four people I saw the movie with had not seen The Sopranos, and the surprise reveal at the end of the movie mostly left her bemused, not impressed and certainly not surprised. The characterizations in the film, with its colossal ensemble cast, largely rely on familiarity with the existing characters; while virtually all of the actors are allowed to bring their own takes to these well-known figures, there’s certainly a degree of impression baked into each portrayal of a younger version of a familiar character. That means that someone without knowledge of the show, or who maybe hasn’t watched it since it came out, will miss out on the foundation provided by the original portrayals of these characters, likely finding most of the performances to be too brief to provide more than superficial personalities. I’d also suspect it would be difficult to track the characters; I watched the show over the past year or so, and I still was uncertain about who some of Tony’s same-age friends, barely if ever mentioned by name, were. (Here I’m actually grateful that this was simultaneously released for home streaming, because I’m sure to watch again with subtitles on to pick up on more dialogue and see if some elusive character names are provided.)

The film also adds a tremendous amount to one’s understanding of the characters in The Sopranos. There’s plenty to unpack. Young Tony sees Dickie’s aging father bring home a beautiful Italian immigrant and beams up at her; it’s hard not to draw the connection to his hallucinatory Italian beauty decades later. Dickie and Tony have a relationship that mirrors, in many ways, Tony’s later mentorship of Dickie’s own son. A younger Livia looks somewhat similar to Carmela. The movie is an exploration of Tony’s boyhood psyche.

We see more clearly the forces at work in Tony’s life, pulling him many ways. While Livia’s borderline personality disorder is just as disruptive to her family’s lives as ever, it’s also made crystal-clear that Tony’s idealized vision of his father doesn’t match the thuggish and violent figure of his past. As a nice example of this, in a late-series episode of the show, Janice tells a drink-infused story about how Johnny once shot a gun through Livia’s hair when they were driving home from a dinner; Tony is quickly angered that Janice brings this up at all and denies that it ever happened. But we see this scene in the movie, and it’s truly horrifying, an abrupt switch from Livia’s constant complaining to the loud blast of the gun in the night and the brief moment when everyone in the car is sitting in shocked silence. That scene also provides an example of where the events depicted don’t quite line up with the story as told in the series; in fact, we even see some scenes from the series’ flashbacks that don’t quite happen exactly the same way, or events that don’t seem to match up with the suggested timeline of what happened in the show. It’s an interesting portrayal of the slipperiness of memory, the subjectivity of perspective. Even the movie itself shouldn’t be interpreted as the “canon” events of the Sopranos story, with its sparing use of surreal imagery and the frame narrative that is Christopher Moltisanti (voiced again by Michael Imperioli) telling the tale of his father from the grave.

It’s also not really about “black and white” gangsters in equal consideration, or about the Newark riots. At the core of the movie, this is a story about the relationship between young Tony and his “uncle” Dickie. There is a B plot involving the Newark riots, white flight, and anti-black racism from the police and the Italian-American community. That B plot has a lot of heady material but does not delve deep enough–I wonder if such an effort was even necessary at all in a movie about a particular Italian-American crime family, and I would argue that the result is largely a distraction from the main narrative. Despite providing a rival black mobster, Harold, (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) to follow as he breaks away from working for the Italian-Americans and launches his own numbers racket, we don’t truly see much from a black perspective. We see the riots, even up close, from a mostly outside perspective, often tinged with fear as the characters focus on the chaos and violence rather than the underlying racism and racial tensions that led to the riots, or we see them as the Italian-American mobsters use the riots as a smokescreen for their own illegal activities. Again, this would be fine if the movie were about the Italian-American criminals’ perspectives only, but it’s ostensibly about viewpoints from both sides of a racial and cultural divide.

As it is, the story is about Dickie, and we don’t really get enough time to understand Harold’s motivations or end goal. The Italian-American characters often have moments to talk to another character in moments of vulnerability, signaling their deeper emotions and concerns even if not stating them outright, and I do not recall Harold getting many such moments. It is a struggle to even sympathize with Harold, as he serves more as an antagonist stealing away from Dickie than an active agent in his own right. His turn to starting his own criminal empire is largely motivated by black empowerment performance art, leaving a spoken word session with the determination not to help his community but to get rich off his black neighbors through vice on his own terms. Certainly there was no need to make Harold more heroic, or smarter, than the Italian-American characters, but it was clear that his choice would lead to a lot of bloodshed and suffering for the people close to him, and it was unlikely that there would be any scenario where Harold would win big in a war against a much more powerful enemy. Additionally, in a moment that has very little setup in the film, we find out that he’s having an affair with Dickie’s own mistress, which seems more primed to reflect fears of interracial mixing or a slide away from the establishment of a white middle-class identity for Italian-Americans than anything that actually seems relevant to the characters’ experiences. In general, Italian-American racial attitudes and fears were provided ample screen time, while there was not really anything that felt like an authentic black perspective–although it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr., the great actor that he is, found personal resonance in the role of Harold and attempted to bring a rich portrayal to what David Chase wrote.

It was not hard to remember that this was a movie created by older white men (making the recurrent use of the N-word by black characters a little cringeworthy, given who wrote the dialogue and made the choice to employ it). There are still plenty of stories to be told about protests, riots, injustice, and race relations then and now, but that story certainly wasn’t shared very coherently here. If anything, this subplot felt like a distraction from the core story, which very much was a Sopranos prequel. And there are stories to be told about the many lived experiences of black Americans, which can include tales of organized crime–in fact, the third-act appearance of Oberon Adjepong as real-life gangster Frank Lucas in a mostly cameo role is a reminder that there is already at least one good, complex portrait of a black crime lord in American Gangster.

As a Sopranos prequel, this movie excels. I’ve already talked about this, but it’s worth emphasizing that Many Saints adds new layers to the characters and events of the original series. Of course, if there were a single protagonist in the movie, it’s not anyone named Soprano, but rather Dickie Moltisanti, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who effortlessly swings between affably charming and murderously enraged. Dickie has a large influence in The Sopranos, despite being dead for decades by the start of the series. He’s representative of the good old days that are past. Tony’s explanation for Dickie’s death and the quest for vengeance he gives to Christopher are important late-stage moments in their fraying relationship. Finding out who Dickie was and what actually happened to him proves to be a worthy subject for an addition to the Sopranos narrative. He proves to be as tragic, gifted, and flawed a character as Tony ever was, sympathetic even as a criminal yet prone to horrific and inexcusable conduct when enraged. The return of his abusive father with a beautiful young Italian woman as his new stepmother sets off an Oedipal narrative that ends as wretchedly for Dickie as it did for Oedipus. There’s plenty of psychological subtext throughout the film, and Dickie’s conflicted feelings regarding his stepmother and his father–redirected toward guilt-assuaging visits to his father’s twin brother (with both brothers played by Ray Liotta) after the father’s death–are an essential part of his story.

I saw some critics complain that the movie does not offer a convincing turn to organized crime for Tony. But the movie ends with him only beginning to make that commitment, not through literal action but through an unspoken vow. A lot is left unsaid. A lot still must happen on Tony’s journey. But this is not a flaw of the film. There is enough to wink at Sopranos fans, but this movie is not, and never was, an origin story for Tony’s entrance into organized crime. Yeah, I’d watch a sequel with the cast assembled here reprising their roles as younger versions of iconic characters to actually depict that journey, but I also don’t need that movie. Yes, this is an origin story, but more than the specific path Tony took to becoming a mobster, this movie gives us even more insight into the roots of his later-life neuroses and provides a riveting tale of the tragic end of Dickie Moltisanti and the turbulent time that would be remembered by Tony and crew through rose-tinted glasses years later as the good old days.

A week’s worth of movies

I’ve watched more movies than usual in the past week, and my wife suggested I write a post to summarize my thoughts on each. Many of these films wouldn’t normally get mentioned on this site–though I admit my criteria are somewhat arbitrary, shifting, and unclear.

So, here you are, Sam!

We started the week with Ant-Man and the Wasp. It was fun but unexceptional. I wouldn’t really mention it except for this post. Lots of humor, lots of heart, and a surprising amount of cool ’60s pulp sensibility, but not a lot of purpose. It actually annoyed me that a mid-credits scene tied the film into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking a largely whimsical film and inserting the illusory stakes and high death count of Infinity War. Special mention should be made of Michael Peña’s performance; he’s just incredible, and nothing highlights his range more than the jump from lighthearted and lovable sweetheart Luis in the Ant-Man films to the angry, bitter, aggressive, and courageous DEA agent at the heart of Narcos: Mexico.

Next up was American Gangster, and I had originally planned to write a post on this film alone. I might still do that. It instantly became one of my favorite crime movies, on par with something like Goodfellas or Casino–and the accelerating pace of the film as it progresses over the rise and fall of Frank Lucas’s criminal empire invited further parallels. I was therefore not at all surprised to see Nicholas Pileggi listed as an executive producer (though this was written by Steven Zaillian). Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were absolutely mesmerizing as Lucas and detective-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts, respectively. And I was surprised to see Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Idris Elba pop up in significant background roles (many other great actors and performances here, but those were the ones that immediately stood out to me). A film directed by Ridley Scott is a little bit of a wild card, but American Gangster definitely stands among the good ones. It was interesting to read afterward how far the film deviated from actual events, and it probably warrants a discussion about how far true events can be stretched for dramatic purposes, especially if the film will still be marketed as a true story. Either way, Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article, “The Return of Superfly,” which was the basis for the film, has been bumped near the top of my reading list.

Then I watched The Incredibles 2. I liked that the sequel seemed like a movie with new ideas to explore using the setting and characters from the original. It was the rare sequel that felt like it had its own purpose for existing, and it built on the original film in fun and clever ways. I enjoyed it a lot, and I especially appreciated the added tension between husband and wife, the slick retro-futurist setting, and the still-interesting dynamics of this superhero family. I don’t know if I have much to say about it now, though. It was fun, but I don’t know that it will stand out much in my mind even half a year from now. (Ironically, Sam suggested this post in large part because she wanted me to write out my thoughts on this movie in particular, and yet it’s the one that I have the least to say on now.)

The best animated film I watched this week was Coco. This movie was so pure and beautiful. It would have been easy to do a movie that was about the young protagonist following his dreams despite his oppressive family situation; it would also have been easy to have a movie where family love and support is more important than chasing ambition. This movie very carefully found a middle ground, in the process developing rich themes and a complex cast of characters who all had room to learn and grow. I cried a lot, both out of heartbreak and joy. All that said, at the end of the day, the afterlife scenario laid out leaves some questions for me. Why do some of the deceased not only seem surprised but scared of the presence of a human boy? Why is there a second life after death that in turn leads to a second death? Do people have to work to have a decent afterlife? Is the relative affluence of a person tied to their remembrance by the living, and if so, how? Can people choose to appear any age? Do kids stay kids and the elderly stay elderly? To be fair, these are the sorts of problems inherent in many common conceptions of the afterlife, but the realm of the dead seemed fully realized and yet left ample opportunities for this sort of fridge-logic concern.

In other Pixar news, I also watched the new short film Kitbull, which similarly prompted a lot of crying for a lot of reasons. I have a lot of feelings about Kitbull. It hurt me and it made me feel really happy. It’s sweet. It’s touching. And the artwork and animation are great. With two Pixar feature films and this short, I guess I had a fairly Pixar-heavy week.

So after Coco was In Bruges. A dark comedy of two idiotic assassins camped out in the eponymous city while waiting for instructions from their benefactor, In Bruges started slow for me, but its ending was bittersweet, tragic, and ultimately ambiguous. I found much of the film crude, and Colin Farrell’s younger assassin character is excessively vulgar, often making ugly comments about race, sex, gender, and dwarfism (a dwarf actor, who is also a racist drug addict, serves as the center of a very bizarre B plot throughout the film, tying into the conclusion in a startling way that is ridiculous and kind of funny). The ugly humor, plus a proud ignorance and practically manic energy boiling over into child-like impatience, makes Farrell’s character difficult to like, and liking him and wanting to see him live become pretty central to the latter part of the film. Thankfully, Brendan Gleeson’s older mentor figure is sort of sweet and charming, and his faith in and love for his partner provides enough of a push to keep me invested. The best part is that the film’s twists and turns were genuinely unpredictable; the movie kept throwing me off course every time I thought I’d figured it out. I like weird films, and I like crime films, and I’m a little surprised that I never got around to this one before now.

To keep mixing things up, I watched All Work All Play next. This is the film I would least expect someone to recognize. It’s a documentary about professional esports, tracking the 2015 “season” of the IEM professional games. This was the only film I watched this week that I didn’t like. There were a lot of interesting individual stories, but nothing really got focused on. The team that had the most focus, set up as underdogs, was Cloud9, which was crushed in the championship and largely dropped from the film’s concern after that. The American team that won the championship, Team SoloMid, was injected intermittently throughout. Team WE, a Chinese team that seemed to actually be interesting underdogs, barely appeared at all. The personal life, ambition, and struggles of championship organizer Michal Blicharz represented the closest to an emotional core for the film, and I could have watched a whole film about him, his wife, and their child, but they were ultimately de-emphasized in favor of the tournament players (still, Blicharz serves as our guide throughout the events of the film). There were so many faces and names, and there was not enough focus. Curiously, the rules of League of Legends are explained, but then we barely see any coherent game footage. Additionally, the film felt overly defensive of esports as a real sport. I actually felt less inclined to view professional gaming as a legitimate sport by the end–certainly there’s a lot of skill, and the professional level of gaming is impressive, but I can’t help but wonder if “sport” is overused as a descriptor, if we shouldn’t come up with new descriptions or categories for tasks that aren’t strictly physical. Additionally, esports seems like a fundamentally flawed product that is ultimately bad for its players. The film almost unintentionally observes players acting like immature children, with at least one parent expressing concern about their emotional well-being. Plus, pro gamers are considered “old” before they hit thirty, yet their potential earnings appear to be considerably less than that of professional athletes. This seems like a situation setting these players up for doom in later life, especially since many of them are college dropouts who are probably too young to be making responsible financial decisions. The cheery optimism about the profession, and the attempt to combat negative stereotypes of pro gaming, results in the dodging of several thorny issues. Basically, every decision made by the documentarians, and the resultant lack of focus, made for an underwhelming narrative and uninteresting presentation. This documentary, if nothing else, helps to showcase how much of an art the genre of documentaries can be. When things go wrong, a documentary fails to be a good story worth watching, even if the subject matter should be interesting.

I closed out my week’s viewings with a solid choice, though: The Graduate. Dang, I know it’s a classic, but I didn’t realize just what a brilliantly neurotic dark comedy it would be. Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the insecure, depressed, aimless college grad Ben who is seduced and exploited by the predatory yet tragically broken Mrs. Robinson, played to perfection as well by Anne Bancroft. It’s in many ways an intriguing psychological study, and a scandalous presentation of upper-middle-class life, but it was the comedy that stuck with me the most. The dialogue was hilarious, the delivery impeccable, and The Graduate is loaded with strikingly absurd visuals, like the backyard pool scuba session or Hoffman’s swinging of a cross to ward off enraged wedding attendees. The cinematography in general is brilliant; I loved how Ben was often small and distant in the frame, overshadowed, if not surrounded, by Mrs. Robinson in the foreground, and I loved it even more when the film reverses this dynamic in a key moment. I only wish that Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) was given a little more purpose. She’s ultimately an object used in the power struggle between Mrs. Robinson and Ben. Sure, Ben loves Elaine and Elaine loves Ben, but it’s not clear why; I suspect that the intention was that Elaine is in many ways a younger version of her mother, someone who has yet to be broken and twisted by the world. Still, Elaine is mostly acted upon, and even in the wild ending, it’s unclear if she’s yet to make a decision that she truly wanted for herself.