When people talk about a movie being depressing, whether in a context either admiring or dismissive, they’re almost always talking about and assessing the dramatic heft of a down-tempo narrative film — how a writer, director and actors worked in concert to shine a light on various human frailties, turmoils and difficulties, and in doing so impacted a viewer’s mood in a manner that lingered with them long after the theater lights came up. Real life, however, is even more full of disease and death, moral injustice and underdogs being smacked down by the powers that be.
That may not always be what one wishes to see in a movie, but it can sometimes be bracing, in a good way, to be confronted by the ugliness of reality on its own terms, in broad daylight. And that’s the kind of beautiful, heart-rending melancholy on display in Battle For Brooklyn, a surprisingly touching documentary from husband-and-wife filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley that details the struggle of a small group of Brooklynites as they try to prevent New York State from seizing 22 acres of land to hand off to a commercial real estate developer with grand designs on building a new arena for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.
The film focuses on Daniel Goldstein (above), a graphic designer turned reluctant but square-jawed activist whose apartment sits almost at what would be center court of said shimmering new arena, part of a polarizing Atlantic Yards project to overhaul the neighborhood of Prospect Heights and also erect a dozen-plus skyscrapers. When the plans were announced in 2004, it was a shock to those whose lives might be most impacted, since they had never heard of it, or been consulted. Developer Bruce Ratner owned a parcel of Brooklyn land easily big enough to house plans for the stadium, but basically wanted to keep that so he could build (and then of course make lots of money leasing) other commercial buildings. So Ratner’s plan called for the displacement of 800-plus residents, ranging in socioeconomic status from the very poor to the much better-off, part of a group of new townhome apartments. Forcing them to move would involve invoking the power of “eminent domain,” which is used when government is building something expressly for the good and benefit of the public — mostly with highways, and sometimes schools.
A very substantial public gift to a private developer, though, didn’t sit well with Goldstein and others, so they fought back. Pitted against them was an entourage of lawyers and public relations emissaries, as well as the entire local government, fans of the basketball team, and other residents excited by the lure of potential construction and/or concession jobs. Spanning years of this fight, Galinsky and Hawley’s film is an engrossing and sometimes even chilling portrait of the way underclasses can and will always be pitted and played off against one another, for veritable scraps off a table. Goldstein is an involving subject, and some of the case’s dark developments — including the revelation of air-quote community groups funded by Ratner to give the appearance of public embrace of the project — are worthy of a regular narrative thriller.
Battle For Brooklyn is in some ways reminiscent of Don Argott’s 2010 documentary The Art of the Steal, about a decades-long tug-of-war over the late Albert Barnes’ $30 billion art collection, and efforts to bring it to Philadelphia, which ran counter to his expressly indicated wishes. Movies like each of these both deftly illustrate the ravenous impulses of capitalism, which abhors unexploited value, and confirm the fact that the American legal system, as it pertains to non-criminal matters, is basically just a gamed system for moneyed and mighty interests to eventually win out. A powerful movie about an important and little-reflected-upon topic, Battle For Brooklyn is a telling snapshot of (offscreen) political maneuvering, and the tossed-around wrecking-ball weight of corporate might as it relates to individual rights. (Rumur Productions, unrated, 93 minutes)