In Dark Horse Race for an Oscar, Robert Moses Parts NYC

How the surprisingly under-the-radar Ed Norton film "Motherless Brooklyn" represents the very best of contemporary American neo-noir.

Edward Norton directing Bruce Willis in "Motherless Brooklyn."

Edward Norton writes, directs and stars in Motherless Brooklyn, a gripping neo-noir. The film is an ambitious dance from strength to strength. No expense was spared in bringing back the finned cars, neon store signs, old-style subway cars and other ephemera of 1950s NYC — even the long-lamented original Pennsylvania Station is resurrected.

And yet, the film never drowns under the weight of nostalgia. Its meticulousness, like that of the British World War II-era TV series Foyle’s War, is a baseline requirement for a credible period piece. Like Foyle, Motherless Brooklyn uses entertainment as a vehicle for imparting true history, yet feels neither forced or didactic. Music is used judiciously, adding effect without overshadowing the drama. An original song by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke adds a contemporary lens, much as RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” gave Mad Men fresh resonance by filtering an ornate orchestral arrangement of “Autumn Leaves” through a hip-hop aesthetic.

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As the film begins, we find detectives Lionel Essrog (Norton) and his partner, Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), sitting in a car, preparing to stake out an apartment with Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Essrog has the best mind for a detective, but he struggles with Tourette syndrome. This aspect of the character is believable, written and acted by Norton with love and compassion. While the symptoms of Essrog’s syndrome are comedic, leading him to blurt out things best kept to himself, it’s never exploited as a gag. Norton portrays a regular guy in a tough line of work who happens to have “a condition,” as he calls it. His colleagues are considerably less gracious — they call him “Freak Show.”

As Minna, a hardened veteran of World War II, enters the apartment, Essrog monitors him via telephone from the car. Minna presents documents that could threaten a third party’s business deal. The situation quickly turns sour; Minna uses an agreed-upon code word and rushes out of the building, quickly followed by his adversaries. In the resulting car chase, the men from the apartment get the better of him, cornering him into an alley and shooting him, killing him.

Minna’s widow, Julia (Leslie Mann), is bitter. She largely rejects attempts by Essrog and his partners to console her, going so far as to refuse many of the belongings recovered from his person. To Julia, “it makes no difference” how Minna died. She comes to the office and dictates terms to the detectives, stating that they now work for her. On her departure, Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale) says that he wants none of this. He fears that whatever “got” Minna will get him, too.

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But Vermonte is overruled: Minna had been surveilling a young Black woman and Essrog vows to continue this work. Eventually, we learn that this woman, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is a lawyer working for an activist organization led by Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), a thinly veiled allusion to writer and urban studies legend Jane Jacobs. True to form, Horowitz is leading the fight against Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). The name almost gives him away — he’s modeled on the unelected king of midcentury NYC, Robert Moses. At this point, the plot becomes convoluted, if intriguing, and therefore true to the noir form. Essrog’s investigations take him from raucous city planning hearings to an uptown jazz club owned by Rose’s father (Robert Wisdom), and a swanky banquet where Randolph praises the rare men (like himself) who “get things done.” Of course, Moses in real-life was less diplomatic: “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”

Motherless Brooklyn also sprinkles telling details from Moses’ real life story, such as his mistreatment of his impoverished brother, Paul. (The film’s character is also named Paul.) Art continues to imitate life, as the planning hearing is disrupted by Horowitz and other activists.

As Randolph, Baldwin is at his hard-charging, macho best. He portrays a man steely and ruthless, infatuated with his own capacity for evil, yet blasé under the cloak of an amorality that he assumes is universal. In his malice, his Randolph outdoes Moses, with a sense of self-justification that includes rape. His menacing charisma draws to mind Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood — a far cry from the rather prosaic, staid Moses of real life. And Randolph is more accomplished, having built all the major bridges into Manhattan but the Brooklyn Bridge, whereas Moses was only responsible for the Triborough, now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. (Moses, of course, built many other bridges as well.)

While these changes reflect poetic license and creative freedom, a few oversights in the script break the spell to some extent. Rose anachronistically references “black and brown” and “Latino” communities, terms that would become common decades later. One of the characters contends that Randolph’s power constitutes an unelected and unaccountable “fourth branch of government.” While the phrase dates to 1959, Douglass Cater initially used it to refer to the press. It was Robert Caro who popularized it in his 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

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In effect, Motherless Brooklyn fuses elements of Jonathan Lethem’s original 1999 novel of the same name and The Power Broker. Having only read the latter, I can’t comment on Norton’s faithfulness to the original novel. Still, the addition of the Moses narrative is a public service, given the way broader culture has left much historical education to the movies. In this sense, Norton’s efforts can be likened to that of Benedict Cumberbatch, who, instead of monetizing his fame with lucrative projects, has steadfastly committed to significant roles that popularize historic people and narratives quite distant from our mass culture. An inspired and painstakingly detailed work of historical drama, Norton’s film has no shortage of style — but it makes its impact with substance.