By Evan King
Recently, I went with two of my classmates to the Chapel Hill premier of Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s new noir drama, featuring Jane Jacobs in all her sharp-witted, bespectacled glory, and Robert Moses as a fully-fledged Hollywood villain. It felt like an obvious choice for me, as a planning student, but I really had to wonder how fans of the original book would process the differences. The book, so I’ve been told, is a detective novel with the protagonist going after a Japanese seafood cartel, while the movie has the same detective, 50 years earlier, grappling with the injustices of urban renewal.
Well, maybe not exactly, he is solving murders, trying to keep loved ones safe, while getting a lesson in mid-century growth-machine politics and power dynamics. As far as realism goes, this is where it gets a bit ridiculous – the real Robert Moses did not hire goons to kill people. His was not a reign of terror, but crucially, one of unshakable financial and bureaucratic control and mistaken public worship. This is alluded to by one character during a brief scene, but the need for fast-paced danger in a movie obliges some more crass methods on the part of Alec Baldwin’s Moses.
If you are not familiar, Robert Moses was a public official in New York who assumed vast powers over the city’s (and region’s) public works construction for much of the 20th century, through manipulation of political and governmental processes, toll revenue collection, and sheer force of personality and will among other things. Much of the city’s modern landscape and problems are the result of his efforts, as are, arguably, those of the country as a whole – he trained planners from all around the United States in his arts of relentless freeway building and degradation of public transit. Moses retained power during the mid-20th century, a time of extreme generosity of federal funding for public works and trust in public officials in the United States. These circumstances have since changed, so contemporary planners struggle to collectively undo what he did, in a congealing world of cars and highways of his making.
The Robert Moses portrayed in Motherless Brooklyn (pseudonym Moses Randolph) is evil, exalting in the power to ruin vast numbers of people’s lives (Robert Moses displaced vast numbers of minorities and other disadvantaged people in clearing corridors for his urban freeways), where the one in The Power Broker is simply blind, unaware of his cruelty, still less of his horrific and lasting impact on the American city. Even the overwhelming arrogance that author Robert Caro speaks of is more paternalistic than sociopathic. Still, what both versions have in common is power disease – lust for power for its own sake. This is what makes Robert Moses (in Caro’s depiction) the quintessential Hollywood villain. If you’ve read The Power Broker, you can probably imagine no more apt historical figure for a villainous monologue (Dick Cheney maybe), and on that score, this movie delivers.
I sure would have enjoyed a more in-depth depiction of Moses’ empire, but the movie also happens to be a highly enjoyable detective drama with other characters and dimensions. I am not a film critic, but I do know that a movie can’t do everything, certainly not capture the whole essence of a very long and deeply researched book. Still, this is likely the closest thing we’ll see to “The Power Broker, the Movie” and I am inevitably left wanting more.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons and Warner Brothers Pictures
About the Author: Evan King is a first year masters student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland. Opinions are his own.