A chronicle of the years-long grassroots resistance to the design-, delay- and deception-plagued Atlantic Yards project in New York, “Battle for Brooklyn” might have been better titled “Boondoggle in Brooklyn.” A battle ordinarily requires two sides, yet this earnest, ungracefully reconstructed saga posits that opposition to the building of the New Jersey Nets’ future home took place in a virtual vacuum, and that the fix was in from the start. Failed crusades don’t make for very inspiring cinema, and pic seems unlikely to galvanize followers in limited release, kicking off June 17 in Gotham.
It’s not that helmers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky don’t have a decent story to tell: Billionaire developer Bruce Ratner had a plan and, abetted by the leading lights of New York politics, including the near-comedic Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, believed nothing could stop him: He would use abandoned Long Island Railroad Yards to build a Frank Gehry-designed arena for his NBA team, with adjacent residential housing, in the middle of a flourishing neighborhood called Prospect Heights. If any inconvenient buildings on the periphery of his project stood in the way, he would simply get the appropriate agencies of New York State to condemn them under the rule of eminent domain.
But Daniel Goldstein, who had recently bought his first apartment, and whose living room was to be Ratner’s center court, had a problem with the plan. Rather than sell out like his neighbors, Goldstein resisted, on the principal that eminent domain — the intent of which is the greater public good — shouldn’t be exploited for the benefit of billionaire campaign contributors.
“Battle for Brooklyn” punches plenty of holes in the arguments of Ratner and his accomplices, including their phony claims about local jobs and low-cost housing, and the idea that there was local support for the project; one pugnacious pro-Ratner group, called Build, turns out to be on the developer’s payroll.
At the same time, however, Galinsky and Hawley never really make Goldstein’s argument: They never cite the well-reported history of publicly financed sports stadiums — a deal in which the public generally loses — or investigate whether Ratner has financial connections to influencers like Markowitz and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Moreover, they provide no penetrating interviews with supporters of the project, or discuss the fact that firing Gehry after the plans were approved — a move that New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff referred to as a “cynical double-cross” — should have forced Ratner to regroup. (The Times, castigated in the film for supporting the Atlantic Yards, isn’t cited for its later criticism.) Worse, they don’t extend their story beyond a few blocks of Brooklyn, which seems like a missed opportunity. “It’s un-American,” Goldstein says about the abuses of power at the heart of the film, before correcting himself: “No — you know what? It is American.” That’s precisely the message that “Battle for Brooklyn” doesn’t sufficiently explore.
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