So, in reviewing The Many Saints of Newark, this must be stated up front – all I’ve seen of The Sopranos is the first episode and the last episode. There’s probably a metric ton of story between the two, and it’s a show that obviously has a huge cultural impact. Even without seeing the show, for example, I recognized enough characters and their quirks in the movie to somewhat paint a picture for myself.
But you should know going in, especially if you’re a fan of the show, that I’m judging The Many Saints of Newark as a movie, not as a continuation. I will definitely watch The Sopranos in the future, but as any movie or television critic can tell you, it’s impossible to see everything. Believe me, we try, and we’ll inevitably fail. If my lack of context and knowledge of The Sopranos makes the reader of this review too angry to continue, I understand.
So why would I choose to watch and review a movie to a show that I’ve mostly never seen? Well, a few reasons. One of them is that I’d been meaning to visit the show for some time, but time just got away from me. Then, when the film was in production, I tried to see the show, but I only got as far as the first episode, and never got back to it. (Not that it wasn’t any good! It was. It just got away from me. It happens. I saw the final episode as it aired, but since I had no idea what was going on it may as well be static on an empty channel.)
Another reason? The closer we got to the release, the less time I knew I had, so I actively decided to watch it as a standalone film and review it from that perspective. Does The Many Saints of Newark work as a film without the context of The Sopranos? Would I even be able to follow along? Or would I be lost among a bunch of characters that I didn’t understand and be stuck inside a movie that didn’t care if I could keep up or not?
I’m happy to report that, yes, The Many Saints of Newark works as a film without the added weight of the show. David Chase is an extraordinarily-talented writer, and he can build a world in which we can fall into with ease. Would I enjoy The Many Saints of Newark even more with context? Absolutely. Even going in blind, I could tell there are significant moments involving characters that fans of the show know and love (we had quite a few fans of the show among the critic’s group that I saw the movie with and hearing them react to different moments and introductions informed me that The Many Saints of Newark will hit hard with devoted watchers).
But more importantly, it tells a riveting story to those unfamiliar with the show, and intrigues enough that those people, like me, will be eager to watch as see how everything falls into place. I plan on seeing The Sopranos and rewatching the film to get the full experience, but I’m satisfied with the taste that I got.
The movie does spoil something right up front – we hear the voice of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) as he lets the audience know that he’s been murdered. But Christopher also lets us know that nothing happens in a vacuum; his death is just another in a long series of them, as men rise and fall in the mob.
This is the story of Christopher’s father, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a young man with ambition, and Tony Soprano (played by both William Ludwig and Michael Gandolfini), the boy who would grow up to kill Christopher and rule a gang of his own. But this is also the story of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a man in Dickie’s employ that decides to break out on his own. Amidst the race riots of Newark in 1967, the fates of these three men will be decided.
Dickie is ambitious, but undisciplined. His father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), has brought home a new bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), and intends to continue his rule, but Dickie wants more. Dickie uses Harold to make some money, but Harold is learning the trade quickly, and knows that the day will soon come when he will no longer need Dickie and makes plans for that day.
Young Tony idolizes his uncle Dickie, and it doesn’t take a fortune teller to see where this will take him.
The Many Saints of Newark isn’t about Tony Soprano – not really. He’s the gauge we use to examine Dickie’s rise and fall, and even without the show informing the background we know that Tony’s own life will reflect Dickie’s in some way. No, if the movie belongs to anyone, it’s Alessandro Nivola, who owns the role of Dickie heart and soul. He’s incredible in the part, putting all of Dickie’s unspoken conflicts — with his father, with his family, with the mob — square in his face.
Nivola has been in many films before (I particularly love his Pollux Troy in Face/Off), but he’s never been asked to carry a movie like this, and he lifts it over his shoulders like it was nothing. It’s a star-making performance. Dickie knows his soul is in flux. He views his life as a transactional enterprise, as if his evil can be counterbalanced by good deeds, but deep down he knows that isn’t how it works. He knows he is damned; they all are.
Young Ludwig isn’t strong enough to carry the weight of the character of Tony Soprano, but Michael Gandolfini takes the reins of his father’s character with ease. If there’s one character that feels disjointed, it’s Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold, who despite Odom’s best efforts feels distracting from Dickie’s story. Perhaps if the film had more time to build that story, like, say, a television show…
The Many Saints of Newark is sure to reward Sopranos fans, and I look forward to exploring more of its facets. Should people who haven’t seen the show see the movie? To be honest, you should watch The Sopranos first.
As a critic, I wanted to see how well the movie stands on its own, but I do feel like I’ve shorted myself from The Sopranos‘ bigger pleasures. But I have a lot of time to dive in and I look forward to it very much.
But The Many Saints of Newark, even without The Sopranos, is a good crime film. Come for The Sopranos, stay to see Alessandro Nivola knock it out of the park.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK REVIEW SCORE: 7/10
The Warner Bros. Pictures release is now playing in theaters and is available on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years, for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.