PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Rhyming the title of your movie with Citizen Kane seems a real bad idea; after all, it may invite unfortunate comparisons.
And yet, it turns out that Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, despite sounding on its surface like a very dry documentary, is at the very least a lively history lesson about the battle over THE city.
That would be New York.
CJ:BFTC, directed by Matt Tyrnaver (Valentino: The Last Emperor), is the chronicle of a conflict that took place in New York City primarily in the 1960s.
The title character, Jane Jacobs, was a journalist turned activist, a Greenwich Village resident and the author of the influential book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” first published in 1960.
Her fight was against New York City’s most ruthless power broker, city planning czar Robert Moses, who used his power and federal funding as part of his big plans for aggressive urban redevelopment.
At stake: no less than the future of the city.
And why look at this particular issue now? Or anytime? Because, as the film mentions, three-quarters of the earth’s population will eventually live in cities.
So the particular way that we build those cities remains a crucial concern.
CJ:BFTC focuses on the epic struggle for the heart of The Big Apple, essentially between Moses and Jacobs.
Moses produced plans for the ultimate city in the 1950s and 1960s that was seen by detractors – and the script for this doc – that led from one generation of slum dwellers to another with a series of grandiose high-rise schemes that merely bumped a major housing problem onto the lap of the next generation of New Yorkers.
In Jacobs’ view, Moses was willfully destroying neighborhoods.
She, on the other hand, saw cities as living, breathing entities, determined by the everyday lives of the inhabitants.
So while Moses focused on cars and roads and traffic, she focused on people. It was their collective existence that made it a city.
Which means that was Moses saw as progress, Jacobs saw as failure. And she wasn’t shy about saying so and acting on it as part of the “bottom up” activists fighting the good fight against the “top down” city planners.
And take a look around, says the film: we might have listened to the wrong advocate. That is to say that Jacobs’ view proved to be prophetic.
If there’s an admirable hero(ine) and ultimate winner in all this, it’s Jacobs.
Director Tyrnaver doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, depending on the usual collection of talking-head interviews, news footage, and archival photos. But the content remains interesting and occasionally even dramatic.
So we’ll plan on 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for an enlightening and absorbing documentary. Citizen Jane is no Citizen Kane, but The Battle for the City is well worth any citizen’s time.