Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Variety pans Battle for Brooklyn, gets a few things right, but misses some fundamentals

While most reviews of Battle for Brooklyn have been positive, the influential trade publication Variety comes out with a pan:
A battle ordinarily requires two sides, yet this earnest, ungracefully reconstructed saga posits that opposition to the building of the New Jersey Nets' future home took place in a virtual vacuum, and that the fix was in from the start. Failed crusades don't make for very inspiring cinema, and pic seems unlikely to galvanize followers in limited release, kicking off June 17 in Gotham.
Reviewer John Anderson, in my view, gets a few things right, but misses some fundamentals.

The "fix was in from the start," and that didn't need to be "posited."

Did opposition "take place in a virtual vacuum"? No, but that is one potential byproduct of choosing to tell a film as a drama, without the support, however awkward, of talking heads.

Missing the railyard

Anderson gets some critical details wrong:
Billionaire developer Bruce Ratner had a plan and, abetted by the leading lights of New York politics, including the near-comedic Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, believed nothing could stop him: He would use abandoned Long Island Railroad Yards to build a Frank Gehry-designed arena for his NBA team, with adjacent residential housing, in the middle of a flourishing neighborhood called Prospect Heights.
The Vanderbilt Yard was not abandoned, and it was not sufficient for the arena; that's why adjacent blocks were needed.

The fight

Anderson writes:
"Battle for Brooklyn" punches plenty of holes in the arguments of Ratner and his accomplices, including their phony claims about local jobs and low-cost housing...

At the same time, however, Galinsky and Hawley never really make Goldstein's argument: They never cite the well-reported history of publicly financed sports stadiums -- a deal in which the public generally loses -- or investigate whether Ratner has financial connections to influencers like Markowitz and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Well, that comes from choosing to compress a lot of history into a drama; there is strong evidence, however contested, that the public would lose in this case.

And Ratner, who has made contributions to nonprofits favored by Markowitz and Bloomberg, doesn't need to have a financial connection; he produced a plan that offered ribbon-cutting opportunities--and back-loaded costs--that sitting politicians love.

Missing from the film?

Anderson writes:
Moreover, they provide no penetrating interviews with supporters of the project, or discuss the fact that firing Gehry after the plans were approved -- a move that New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff referred to as a "cynical double-cross" -- should have forced Ratner to regroup. (The Times, castigated in the film for supporting the Atlantic Yards, isn't cited for its later criticism.) Worse, they don't extend their story beyond a few blocks of Brooklyn, which seems like a missed opportunity.
I agree that, as I've written, the film scants the larger context of Brooklyn and that supporters could get more voice.

But the Times never fundamentally criticized Atlantic Yards on its editorial page, which conveniently forgot earlier criticism and was strategically silent.

The only "criticism" came from Ouroussoff, who expressed dismay when Gehry was jettisoned and his arena design turned pedestrian, only to offer two cheers for Ratner's ultimate solution.

It really was a minor element in a larger story--surely worth covering should Battle for Brooklyn be expanded to a mini-series, but understandably absent in a 93-minute film. It's telling, however, that the Times's take looms large in this reviewer's memory.

Forcing a regroup?

Firing Gehry didn't force Ratner to regroup. It was part of a strategy hatched in Forest City Ratner's offices, a strategy that the government overseers easily blessed.

It was part and parcel of the overall battle described in this film, a battle in which the developer-government alliance, tacit and powerful, was never in question.

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