Ambitious but overlong at five parts, Sundance’s documentary “Brick City” can’t help but inspire comparisons to HBO’s groundbreaking drama “The Wire,” charting as it does charismatic mayor Cory Booker’s efforts to revive Newark, N.J., while simultaneously chronicling challenges facing the police and inner-city residents trying to break the murderous cycle of drugs, gangs and crime. Shot over several months in 2008 and climaxing with the election of Barack Obama, the filmmakers are understandably enamored with Booker, but so much so that this sobering look at urban strife at times plays like an infomercial for the pol.
Further cementing “The Wire” analogy, each act break begins with an upcoming line spoken by one of the participants in Newark’s ongoing drama, printed against a black backdrop. Shot cinema verite style, the cameras ride along with Booker as he cruises the streets late at night, talking to curfew-violating teens; and sits at gruff Police Director Garry McCarthy’s shoulder as he frets about crime statistics, which Booker obsesses over as a way to eliminate perceptions of Newark as a shooting gallery — a vital aspect of his urban-renewal plans.
Adding a human face to the proceedings, the documentary also follows Jayda, a Blood gang member who is trying to turn her life around by mentoring youths as she prepares to have a baby with her boyfriend Creep, who belongs to the Crips; and the principal seeking to maintain order at the local high school amid the nagging threat of violence.
“Who’s being raised here by a woman?” a group of teenage boys is asked, and tragically, nearly every hand in the room shoots up.
Filmmakers Marc Levin (also behind the new HBO doc “Schmatta”) and Mark Benjamin share producing credit with actor Forest Whitaker, but they would have been better served by tightening their focus. Sprayed over five parts, “Brick City” can’t help but meander in places, diluting moments of genuine emotion and power that shed light on intractable problems. And while Booker has demonstrated himself to be a formidable ambassador for his town — the kind of guy who says soaring things like, “I will not let finite disappointment undermine infinite hope” — five nights of him reminds us that when it comes even to charismatic politicians, there really can be too much of a good thing.
“Brick City” represents an admirable exercise, but the foundation would have been stronger by laying fewer bricks in this wall.