Mark Reviews Movies

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 4/21/17 (limited); 5/12/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 11, 2017

It's more than a bit unfair that Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is as dull and uninformative as it is. The movie is a documentary about urban planning, which probably sounds boring, and that's something that director Matt Tyrnauer must have realized at some point in the planning, making, or editing of the movie.

There's a common defense for movies with such dull-sounding premises: Yes, it sounds boring, but there's so much more to it than that. It's the notion that a movie, especially a documentary, can rise above its subject matter, find intriguing and unlikely angles through the exploration of a subject, and tell a compelling story, in spite of any preconceived notions about the subject at hand. In this case, one can't make that defense.

The central narrative is ostensibly about conflicting ideologies of the way a city should be. The conflict is personified in the actions of Robert Moses, an influential city planner with a philosophy of "urban renewal," and Jane Jacobs, an activist with a journalistic background in architecture and the study of metropolitan areas. The battleground is New York City in the mid-20th century.

This is a sound narrative, obviously, and framed in this way, it has the potential to be a fascinating story. Something is definitely off, though. As it comes across in the movie, this story simply doesn't seem to have much to it.

That suspicion arrives early—during the movie's prologue, in fact. Tyrnauer fills this opening section with an assortment of talking heads—an assortment of writers, mostly who, when we eventually learn their names and fields of study, are involved in urban studies. They lay out the case for this conflict. Moses' concept of urban renewal essentially translated into the action of bulldozing entire buildings, block, and neighborhoods to make way for buildings of modernist design and city-sprawling expressways. Jacobs opposed this thinking and, most certainly, its results. That battle of ideas has repercussions that have lasted and continues to this day.

This tidy, little summary is the extent of the rest of the movie. The arguments presented during the prologue are repeated and reiterated throughout the rest of the documentary, which presents a series of historical examples of when Moses and Jacobs—and, more importantly, the two ideologies of what makes a successful city—came into conflict over some plan or project.

The result is that Tyrnauer's documentary feels like a visualized term paper. From its neat introduction and the pat conclusion (which essentially repeats the same points that were made in the beginning—and repeated throughout—over again, albeit with a focus on the present day on a global scale), the movie is dry and repetitive (The major upside is that Tyrnauer and his research team have gone to great lengths to show the expanse of New York City on the era through abundant archival footage).

It doesn't help that neither Jacobs nor Moses are presented as actual people. We get brief biographies of the two—the politically progressive Moses' shift in worldview from his pre-World War II outlook to his view after the war and Jacobs' rise from journalist to author. Moses is the villain, whose every appearance is accompanied by ominous music. Jacobs is the woman who rose through a male-dominated field to prominence through the publication of her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She opposed Moses, and since he's the villain, that makes her the heroine.

The odd thing is that we can point to a specific vision when it comes to Moses. In Jacobs' case, the vision is a bit fuzzier. In her book, which is quoted liberally throughout the movie, she argues that a city is a living thing, made up of people of diverse backgrounds who form homes, which form blocks that form neighborhoods, which make up the vast tapestry of a city. A successful city is one that takes these differences into account, because individuals know what's best for themselves, blocks know what's best for the people who live there, and neighborhoods form with the community's direct, almost unconscious involvement.

It's such a logical argument that it barely needs any clarification or defense. Tyrnauer seems to be of the same opinion on Jacobs' thesis, since, one the movie iterates it, the idea doesn't come up again until the end.

This is, perhaps, the movie's central oversight. The Jacobs of the documentary's story is a woman with an idea—a great one, at that. Her role in the narrative, though, is always oppositional. She's a negative actor, speaking out and organizing people against Moses' plans. What we don't get from her—or the movie—is a counterargument to Moses' urban renewal. There are no specifics from the movie's presentation of Jacobs, just resistance and the vague idea that any given city and the people within it will work things out for themselves. It feels good, but it's hollow.

This might be the reason the movie becomes so repetitive. It's one challenge after another, with Moses presenting one plan and Jacobs fighting against it. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a broad overview in desperate need of specifics.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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