'Motherless Brooklyn' Finds Political Potency in 1950s Film Noir Directed by Edward Norton
Starring Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones
Published Oct 29, 2019On the surface, Motherless Brooklyn is loving tribute to 1950s film noir. There's a hardscrabble detective with debilitating Tourette's, an atmospheric jazz soundtrack (featuring a song from Thom Yorke and Flea), and lots of retro New York scenery. It's frankly a little surprising that writer/director/star Edward Norton didn't go all-out and shoot this thing in black and white.
But dig past the vintage veneer, and Motherless Brooklyn is rooted in the current political moment. As lead gumshoe Lionel (Norton) follows up on the case that got his boss Frank (Bruce Willis) killed, he uncovers a political scandal involving city commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and shrewd lawyer-activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Moses is a ruthlessly power hungry politician who poses as a man of the people despite resenting the poor. He enacts racist policies and displaces the needy, all while talking a big game about making America great. Sound familiar? It's pointed without beating the audience over the head — and it's subtly reinforced by the fact that Baldwin famously parodied Trump on SNL.
The film sometimes confuses having Tourette's with having a personality, and Lionel's character development never goes much deeper than his tendency to yell at inappropriate moments. And even though this gets a little repetitive over the course of two-and-a-half hours, the story of Trumpian corruption offers a solid payoff, with lots of immersive film noir atmosphere along the way.
At a time when some politicians celebrate an idealized vision of 1950s white Americana as a way to justify discrimination, it follows that a 1950s film noir is an effective format for a social critique.