When I saw “The Many Saints of Newark,” I wanted it to immerse me in the lives of New Jersey mobsters in the late ’60s and early ’70s the same way that “The Sopranos” immersed us in the lives of New Jersey mobsters at the turn of the 21st century. The film more or less achieves that. That’s why, while not nearly as great as the series, it’s a pretty good Saturday night movie. Of course, the other thing I wanted from “The Many Saints” was for it to put me in a time machine so that I could witness the formative teenage years of Tony Soprano, who is portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael (who was 20 at the time the movie was shot in 2019).
The young Tony displays a small handful of delinquent tendencies. As a kid, he organizes a numbers racket at his parochial school (which, as staged, feels like it could have been a joke out of an old Billy Crystal movie). Once in high school, he ignores his schoolwork and gets lousy grades, and he and his buddies hijack a Mr. Softee ice cream truck and take it for a joyride.
Yet beneath those acting-out tendencies, what’s striking about the characterization of Tony in “The Many Saints of Newark” is what a sweet, troubled, hopeful and almost innocent kid he is. The one fistfight we see him get into isn’t a case of bullying; the other kid sort of had it coming. And what’s touching, at certain points, are the signs we get of just how badly Tony wants to be good. He has grown up in a mobster’s family, with one of those take-no-prisoners fathers (played with deftly authentic callousness by Jon Bernthal). In a sense, he has always breathed the air of violence. But he reacts mostly by recoiling from it.
He’s on the high school football team and respects the coach. (When his mother, the fearsome Livia, accuses him of smoking dope, he uses the fact that he’s a football player as the proud proof that he would never do that.) Tony isn’t like his father. He’s basically the early-’70s version of a shining-eyed, long-haired slacker who likes to lay next to his oversize stereo speakers and get overpowered by rock ‘n’ roll. Speaking of those speakers, they were stolen and given to him as a gift by Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s “uncle” (though not by blood), who becomes his much nicer father figure. Even here, though, Tony first balks at the prospect of taking the speakers; he goes along with it but doesn’t quite think it’s right. Later in the movie, when you see where those speakers literally land, it shores up that for Tony being a good kid means something.
In my review of “The Many Saints of Newark,” I said that the film’s key disappointment is that the audience never gets to experience Tony taking his first crucial step toward an underworld mentality. It’s my feeling that we needed to see something snap in him, or wake up in him; we needed to see the early version of a darkly glowing lightbulb going off over his head. The film thinks it’s showing that to you — in its last moments, which turn, I’m not kidding, on a pinky promise. The fact that pinky promises are now the province of 8-year-old girls doesn’t exactly make this one more convincing.
But there’s something else that I couldn’t say in my review — because it would have been a spoiler — that I want to say now that the movie has opened. So if you don’t want a key twist in “The Many Saints of Newark” revealed, please stop reading.
Late in the movie, one of the central characters gets whacked. I won’t say who, but he’s pretty major. And with a kind of consummate “Sopranos” irony, he didn’t even do anything! He didn’t betray anyone; he didn’t get caught in a gang war. He simply laughed at the wrong person. (That said, by the end he has committed enough vicious sins to have earned the cosmic comeuppance of a gangster’s execution.) The murder of this person is supposed to hit the young Tony Soprano hard, to knock him for a loop. Yet by suggesting that it winds up nudging Tony toward the life, there is something that the film gets crucially wrong. As I read the psychology of the situation, this murder, of someone Tony cares deeply about, would have had the opposite effect: It would have scared him straight. It would have made him look at the gangster life and say, “Not for me. No fucking way.”
At the bottom of the film’s confusion about the effect this event would have on Tony is a kind of gangster-film paradox. For nearly 100 years, we’ve been watching movies that ask us to identify with mobsters, hoodlums, cold-blooded killers. When this all began, in the age of films like “The Public Enemy” (1931), “Scarface” (1932), and “White Heat” (1949), many voices rose to declare that this form of entertainment was immoral. Back then, it had a subversive and even dangerous edge; that’s why real-life gangsters like Al Capone often wound up modeling their style and behavior on the Hollywood versions that had first been modeled on them. And it’s why the term “antihero” was coined. We all know what a hero or a heroine is: someone to emulate. An antihero is someone who becomes our center of gravity in a drama — they’re the protagonist — yet our attitude toward their actions is more ambivalent. We identify… without necessarily approving. Or so the theory goes.
The reality, of course, is a lot less tidy. In identifying with movie gangsters, from James Cagney’s electrifying Cody Jarrett to the glamorous title characters of “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967 ad line: “They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people.”) to the clan of the “Godfather” films, which Don Corleone presides over with a shivery but mythically comforting paternalistic power, we can’t say, with such clean moral certitude, that we don’t want to be them. In a way, we do. That’s part of the insurgent power of cinema. And it carried over to television with “The Sopranos.”
Tony Soprano did many, many things that most of us would never consider doing — but the whole point, and the brilliance of James Gandolfini’s performance, is that in so many ways Tony was us. The line between what the gangster does and what we do (or wouldn’t do), between license and morality, crime and obedience gets smudged when we watch a great gangster drama. Tony isn’t just us because, for all of his violence, he’s a confused, put-upon suburban husband and father. He’s us because “The Sopranos,” like Shakespeare’s most legendary plays, shows us the grand projected spectacle of the killer inside us.
That’s its greatness. And where I wanted “The Many Saints of Newark” to live up to the vision of the show is by revealing how the young Tony Soprano could have been two things at once: an ordinary Jersey kid, and someone who covets a kind of power that’s impossible to attain through ordinary channels. That movie, or some imaginary version of it, is still unfurling as a shadow play in the megaplex of my mind. But David Chase and company didn’t quite show it to us. In this movie, at least, they didn’t dare to take that leap. Instead, they took Tony Soprano and gave him his own safe space.