" The Many Saints of Newark" Review
By: MTN Reporter Will Chappell
The Many Saints of Newark is billed as the origin story of Tony Soprano, but
instead delivers an entertaining, self-contained mafia story against the backdrop of the
racially divided Newark of the late-60s and early-70s. While the plot is somewhat
predictable, the film delivers a mix of The Sopranos pathos, a richly textured period
piece, added depth for familiar characters and great acting that will entertain fans of the
original show or gangster cinema.
The movie starts in Newark in 1967, where Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola)
is a young associate of the DiMeo crime family followed everywhere by a young Tony
Soprano (William Ludwig). When Moltisanti’s father (Ray Liotta) returns from Italy with a
new bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), and begins physically abusing her the young
Moltisanti confronts and kills his father.
Conveniently for Dickie, the 1967 Newark riots are in full swing, and he is able to
ditch his father’s body in a business which he burns down. The Newark riots were
sparked by the police beating of a black cab driver and ended with the National Guard
being deployed and 26 dead over five days of rioting. Like the pilot first season of
Watchmen which depicted the destruction of Tulsa’s black Wall Street, The Many Saints
renders the angry, tumultuous history of a racial incident which is unknown to many
Americans today. It shows the inciting incident and depicts the widespread looting and
indiscriminate force used by law enforcement to dramatic effect, giving a vivid
background for the racial tensions that arise over the course of the movie.
The other protagonist of the film is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a young
black man who works for Dickie running the family’s gambling operation in the black
community. Following Dickie’s advice, McBrayer kills a member of a rival gang in an
Army recruitment center and is forced to flee Newark. At the same time, Tony’s father,
Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), is sent to prison for four years.
From there, the film jumps forward four years to Johnny’s return from prison to
his wife (Vera Farmiga) and now teenaged son (Michael Gandolfini). Dickie is now the
leading earner for the family and has taken his father’s widow as his mistress. Harold
returns to Newark intent on setting up his own, black-led crime operation, starting a
gang war with the DiMeo crime family for control of the city. And Tony is torn between
the path of his idol, Dickie, and a desire to stay on the straight-and-narrow to hopefully
play professional football.
Gandolfini bears a striking resemblance to his late father, James, who originally
played the iconic role of Tony Soprano in the original show on HBO (1999-2007) but
does not deliver anywhere near the same effect as his father. His performance is fine,
notably standing out in scenes with Vera Farmiga playing his mother, cause of so much
angst in the series. But he is outshone by a standout performance by Nivola as Dickie
Moltisanti. Nivola makes the audience sympathize with a morally bankrupt character
almost as well as James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano or Bryan Cranston starring as
Walter White in Breaking Bad. Dickie is outgoing and well-liked in his public life, an
engaged member of his community and loving father, but that façade masks violent
tendencies cultivated over years in the mafia.