As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?
You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.
Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.
There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.
But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.