'The Many Saints of Newark' is being very misunderstood
“Who made Tony Soprano” reads the tagline for The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase’s prequel to his landmark HBO series The Sopranos. And we’re probably supposed to assume the line refers to Dickie Moltisanti, the almost mythic figure in the show who we never see—as he died many years earlier—but who’s talked about often and reverently, especially by Tony Soprano, and especially when Tony is talking to Dickie’s son, Christopher, who never really knew his father.
The film is narrated by Christopher, who at this point is speaking from beyond the grave, having been murdered by Tony in the series. And yes, he’s understandably bitter about that. We see many of the familiar characters from the show at a younger age, and are given enactments of some of the legendary stories we’ve heard about Dickie and Tony’s father Johnny. And we see who Dickie actually was (although this is debatable—more on that in a bit), which is very much not the grand figure he’d always been said to be. No, what Dickie was is something much more like Tony Soprano himself: He’s prone to eruptions of violence, he’s a womanizer, and he thinks he is, on some level, a moral man, despite it all. He tries to achieve some level of redemption by doing “good deeds,” which amount to little more than a bit of charity work and bringing his imprisoned uncle (a delightful Ray Liotta, doing double duty by also playing Dickie’s father) some jazz records. Deep down, Dickie Moltisanti is a pathetic man, and if he’s to be held up as an icon, it’s only because he exactly follows the template for everyone else in that life. He thinks he’s different from his homicidal father: he’s not. We’ve been led to believe he’s different from Tony’s contemporaries: he’s not. He, all of them, are the same.
And this is what I thought of immediately after watching The Many Saints of Newark—“Who” made Tony Soprano was not so much Dickie as it was this life Tony was born into, and this cycle of violence no one will escape. We see Tony as a boy, and again as a teenager, looking up so much to Dickie, and we know he has no other option. He will become what Dickie is, because he has no choice. In very real ways it reminded me of the finale of another HBO show, The Wire, in which we see the entire story simply feed back into itself. Nothing changes, new faces just step in to fill the same roles.
The does, to some extent, also free another character from much of the blame of “making” Tony, though undoubtedly she had a hand: Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother, whom Tony blames so much for his psychological troubles during the course of the series. She’s far less oppressive here than we’d been led to believe, and while it’s true that she has some difficulties with mental health (which she declines to address), how can we expect Tony to have been anything different with this world he’s living in? Livia may have been a problem, but she was hardly the problem.
Contrast Dickie and Tony with what happens to the black characters in the film. The movie is set in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, an extremely volatile time in Newark, when racial tensions were at a fever pitch. Set against this and the ensuing riots, we’re introduced to Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Harold, who sees what the Italian mob is doing to his own community and makes a move to take that over himself. But Harold is not simply filling a role in an existing framework, as that framework doesn’t yet exist. The black community has been constrained in other ways, ways that have themselves been deeply destructive, but that are being challenged and, to some degree, broken down. They’re in the process of forcing the creation of a new social structure, and by the end, we see that Harold is not just stepping up to replace a person exactly like him (as Tony will do, and as Dickie has done), but has actually broken out into a new place, with a new role, and new power.
But one of the hallmarks of The Sopranos has always been the leaving of loose ends and creation of ambiguity—this is life, after all—and so we return to Christopher and his narration. I’m certain I’m far from the only one to point out that there’s a very good chance we cannot trust what we see in the film to reflect reality (“reality” as it exists in this fiction, of course). Christopher, angry about his own murder, insulting Tony in his voiceover, is here telling us the story of Tony’s hero. Dickie is Christopher’s father, yes, but he’s a father Christopher essentially never knew. And so what are we really seeing?
There’s some chance what we’re seeing is Christopher working to tear down Tony’s idol, to show him to be as vicious and philandering as Tony himself is. But I think it’s something else. Tony is the closest thing to a father figure Christopher had in life, and so is it hard to imagine that if Christopher were to tell the story of his biological father, he would transfer Tony’s traits onto that man? We already know from Christopher’s Hollywood dreams that he’s not a terrifically creative storyteller. It’s no stretch to think he’d derive this story only from his own experience.
In truth, we’ll never know exactly what we’ve seen in The Many Saints of Newark, because the not knowing is so often the point in The Sopranos. It could be any of these things, or something else entirely. What we do know is that this is not a movie about Dickie Moltisanti. It’s a movie about Tony Soprano.