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.

What I’m Into: Fall 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve had posts just talking about what I was into at a given moment. Not review, or analysis, just an overview of everything engaging me at the moment. Those posts were sort of aimless, but also sort of fun, because I’d just talk about whatever was absorbing me at the moment. I’ve had so much narrowed focus on big franchise things lately on the blog that I think one of these sorts of scattered, aimless, free-form posts is long overdue.

So, what am I into right now?

What I’m Reading

I’m reading quite a few things, hopping between them. I’m finally around to Michael Crichton’s posthumous Dragon Teeth, which so far has been an enjoyable Western adventure romp with the fairly unique focus on the Bone Wars and early field paleontology. Marsh and Cope are characterized quite colorfully but the rest of the cast, including the protagonist, are fairly bland. I’m simultaneously reading Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, which does a great job portraying Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at an especially fraught moment in their relationship before the events of the prequel trilogy, alongside a lot of cool Jedi Stuff. Then I’m reading Jon Dubin’s Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market; it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a truly academic book, and so I’m making slow progress through this dense text despite the rather slender physical packaging, but it’s very worthwhile, and I’m sure it would be a tremendous resource not just for disability law scholars but practitioners like me and perhaps even a general reader seeking to better understand the arbitrary and archaic way that the Social Security Administration attempts to account for an individual’s ability to perform other work and to determine how much of that work actually exists, and in what form, in the national economy.

I’ve also been churning through the published materials for the Alien RPG from Free League. This is just tremendous stuff. I’m not particularly interested in published adventures in general but the cinematic mode gameplay modules that have been published so far offer some really tense, vivid, horrific scenarios. And mechanically, there are a lot of ways to make the players feel insecure, underpowered, under-resourced, and facing threats they can’t possibly comprehend or defeat. (I’ve seen at least one reviewer suggest that agendas and effects like panic take the roleplaying out of the players’ hands, but players would still have to play out how things happen–this if anything just sets up more dramatic opportunities and encourages a feeling of loss of control at key moments that reflects the horror focus of the game.) Just as importantly, the RPG recognizes that the Alien franchise has been about a lot more than the alien from the very beginning, and it builds out enough complicated politics between interstellar governments and mega-corps to provide entertaining storytelling possibilities for their open-sandbox campaign mode. I hope to get some friends to play through at least one or two of the cinematic games in the near future. I think I’ll have more to say about all the materials when I’m through reading them, but of course a proper review of a game is rather incomplete if not based on play experience, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt unless I get a group together for this quicker than I think likely. In fact, there are a few different Alien/Aliens posts coming up, but I’m going to keep them to a single day, rather than another series spanning multiple weeks; Halloween seems appropriate.

What I’m Playing

I’ve been in a bit of a tabletop gaming mood lately. Way back in February, I wrote about a routine I had of playing Ring Fit Adventure, a single-player RPG, and then Star Wars: Squadrons with friends over the course of the week. All of that’s changed since then. Ring Fit Adventure play is now quite sporadic. The single-player video game of choice varies a lot as well. And the Squadrons play changed over to (virtual) tabletop roleplaying with those friends; one of them has always been an exceptional gamemaster and has been leading us through an Edge of the Empire campaign, and I haven’t had this much fun with a tabletop RPG in years. I’ve even led a couple of sessions with some side characters set within the same continuity. So between that and reading the Alien materials more recently, I’ve been really energized to try to get to more tabletop roleplaying. As usual, I’ll probably spend a lot more time thinking about settings and stories than actually playing any of these systems, but it’s generative creative energy either way. In addition to the aforementioned materials, I broke down and purchased the Cypher System Rulebook and its Predation supplement because the Terra Nova-meets-Dinotopia-meets-Xenozoic setting looks too damn cool.

I also just pledged on Kickstarter to back a physical printing of Matthew Gravelyn’s survival-adventure journaling game Clever Girl because I can’t get enough of dinosaurs in games and fiction. It’s not the only unlicensed work heavily inspired by Jurassic Park that I’ve recently purchased–about a month ago, I got Dinosaur World from Pandasaurus; it’s a delightful competitive game about building the best dinosaur park you can, producing dinosaurs amid other attractions and amenities and attempting to keep interest in your park maintained through constant expansion and greater risk (it’s also a sequel to their previous Dinosaur Island, which I haven’t played). My wife and I have only played Dinosaur World once so far, and it took a while for us both to get a feel for how the rounds flowed and everything that we should be keeping in mind during the different phases. Once we got that down, it was a lot of fun, and I’ve been itching to play again with a full four players (it’s for 2 to 4).

We technically attended Gen Con this year, but we were only there for part of a day (Sam really struggles with crowds and being in public now). Nonetheless, between Gen Con and online purchases, I’ve picked up quite a number of board games–nothing super-new but certainly games released over the last few years that I’ve been wanting to play. Aside from Nemesis, the ones I picked out this year have been mostly licensed stuff. I’ll write more if/when I get around to these games. I also might write about some of the older games we haven’t played in a while if we pull them out in the coming months–which I hope to be the case more and more as we’re trying to set aside some time for board games, both between the two of us and with a couple friends, on a recurrent basis. Hopefully, there will be no dramatic new developments in the pandemic that would require us to back off from that.

Normally, I would have brought up video games sooner, but I haven’t been playing as much lately. I’ve been intermittently playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I’m trying to do three playthroughs of each game in the trilogy (on top of the playthroughs I had in the original releases of these games). I’m currently on the second playthrough of the second game with my only Renegade character, and even without being a pure Renegade, I don’t enjoy how much of a dick you are with this playstyle. But I’ve been just as likely to play a little bit of Jurassic World: Evolution (yes, I keep coming back to it after all) or The Sims 4. I’ve even given Alien: Isolation another try, finishing…most of it. I’ll have a post about that experience on Halloween, as well. The video game I’m most excited about isn’t even out for about another month: Jurassic World Evolution 2 looks like an improvement on the original in about every way–and at 280 hours recorded, I’ve now put more time into this game than any other in my Steam library.

What I’m watching

I re-watched “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” from Star Wars: Visions this weekend. They’re so good. I’ve also been watching Letterkenny, Marvel’s What If…?, DC’s third season of Titans, and Only Murders in the Building. I’m only current on Only Murders, which is hilarious while simultaneously being surprisingly heartfelt and mysterious. Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez are all delivering fantastic performances every episode. Lastly, for television at least, I’ve started watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, just as most people are now talking about Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Ah, I’m forever behind the times.

I don’t think I’ve watched very many new or new-to-me movies recently, or at least not since The Suicide Squad, which has already been nearly two months ago. Once more, it’s what’s in the near future that my attention is more focused on. I’ll be seeing The Many Saints of Newark, actually in a cinema, sometime this week, and I’ll also be going to Dune in theater later this month or early November. I’m sure I’ll be posting reactions to both when I can.


I’ve written before about trying to balance consumption of big franchises and existing IP with original creative works. Looking at my blog posts this year, and paying attention to what I’m currently engaging with, I am a little disappointed to realize how heavily my consumption has favored the former this year. But since 2020, life has been tumultuous for a lot of people, and that’s certainly been true for my house. Plus, work has remained quite busy for about a year now. So I guess it’s okay if I’m taking in more junk comfort entertainment. I’d also argue that even though these creative works most benefit large corporations and often regurgitate existing ideas, characters, plot structures, and so on, some of the current franchise productions are managing to mine new territory and do really interesting things. Still, it’s something worth being mindful of, and it might gradually lead to a rebalance of what I’m spending my time on.

I think I’d like to sign off by doing something a little differently and talk specifically about what I’m into creating instead of just consuming. Outside of this blog and the briefs I prepare for work, I haven’t written consistently in a long while now. But I do have sporadic bursts of creativity. I try to jot ideas down in a journal. Over the past few months, a few dreams have connected with other, older ideas and led to two full outlines for fantasy stories set in a shared universe. I think they’re each maybe novella length, at least, and I’d really like to devote some time to writing those stories in full. I’ve also been dabbling with fan fiction, though I haven’t completed any of those projects. Some of it’s been related to those Jurassic Park gap stories I mentioned in that series of posts on here. The fantasy stories are closer to my heart and so even if I finish them, I probably won’t post more than some excerpts here, but I think I very well might just post any finished fan fiction to this blog. Maybe writing this here, publicly, will get me to commit to completing some of these projects.

And that’s just about everything I’m into, for now.