I was able to see Edward Norton’s remarkable new film, Motherless Brooklyn, at the Telluride Film Festival in September. It was one of the best films there this year, a spellbinding, ambitious, beautifully realized work of art. The film’s photography and production design instantly transport you viscerally and emotionally into another time (the late 50s in New York City). And yet Motherless Brooklyn delivers so much more: an instantly classic lead character in a career-best performance by one of our finest actors, scene after scene of memorably smart and funny dialogue delivered by a brilliant ensemble cast, gripping action with a gorgeous jazz score that’s the best I’ve heard in years. It’s nothing less than a modern masterpiece.
That Norton wrote, produced, directed and stars as the heartbreaking Tourettic gumshoe in a film that dares to take on the big, dark questions of America’s character is a bravura achievement right up there with Warren Beatty’s Reds, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or, the film it most closely references, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Norton’s been with us for a while — Primal Fear, American History X, Fight Club, even Birdman — but nothing prepared me for the genius he brought to this film.
The film delivers pure, old-fashioned movie thrills and ought to be seen by American audiences of all ages. It also offers a bracing cautionary tale about what threatens us as citizens in any era, and a reminder that it’s up to us to act in defense of ourselves and each other.
Motherless Brooklyn takes place in the past, but it’s in every way a story for our time, grappling with big themes: preservation versus growth, humanity versus industry, cynicism versus activism, unchecked political power arrayed against common interest.
Filmmakers, whether creating documentaries or narratives of the imagination, are our storytellers, both obeying the same laws. The past illuminates the present (and vice versa) and when we sense and recognize these connections we’re reminded that our struggles are eternal and that there is a real cost when we fail — as a society — to stand up and do our part.
And in these difficult days when those in highest office display an imponderable and craven lack of moral courage, or even a simple respect for the rule of law, when an astonishing number of our citizenry evince a willingness to yield to bullies and racists, it’s easy to get worn down and do, as Chinatown’s main character Jake Gittes advises, “as little as possible.” Motherless Brooklyn defies that cynicism with a counter assertion. Norton’s afflicted antihero, Lionel Essrog, rises in the face of that cynicism, greed and brutality, and suggests that there’s a hero in all of us and that action has meaning. The film seizes back the moral core of Film Noir, liberating it from easy despair, and in the process reinjects a nearly obsolete genre with power and purpose and profundity.
If a lonely orphan, burdened by society’s heartless response to his Tourette Syndrome, can rise above his daily struggles and battle against jaded Masters of the Universe types, then what excuse do the rest of us have for our own apathy? Motherless Brooklyn answers with a resounding: none!
— Ken Burns