Redford Takes on Rahm in the Furious Blur of ‘Chicagoland’

Online magazine:
The Daily Beast

March 6, 2014

Perhaps it isn’t strange that Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, feels more comfortable and candid around a group of schoolchildren than adults. He can hold forth, and they are unlikely to challenge him, and certainly not call him “Murder Mayor” as the head of the city’s teaching union does. But still, the most telling scenes in CNN’s compelling new documentary series Chicagoland come when we see the vain Emanuel with a group of schoolchildren, to whom he delivers an astonishingly self-centered, boastful yet whiny summary of his simply-amazing career.

The series, with Robert Redford listed as one of the executive producers, aims, ambitiously, to cut across political, law enforcement, and social classes showing the component parts of a city in action. It has tonal and schematic elements of VeepThe Wire, and L.A. Law, with the kinds of linking shots of the magnificent Chicago skyline and teeming streets of an ambitious movie director. But can this portrait of a city be raw and honest, as well as salacious and sexy?

The first two episodes focus on the mayor’s plan to close 54 under-attended schools. The unions and communities say this is despicable: the children not only need their schools, the schools they would now have to go to would mean traversing gang territory every day risking their lives — hence “Murder Mayor.”

As a viewer, you think you know the deal in the kind of scene when a mayor visits a school: surely silver-haired Emanuel will deliver some edifying, earnest anecdotes about the virtues of working hard, and achieving success through determination and application.

Wrong! Emanuel wants to talk about himself.

“Have you been quiet or patient?”

Yes, say the children.

“Better than the mayor,” Emanuel says, “’cuz I’m not quiet or patient.”

He then regales them, boastful without even the sheen of a humblebrag, with tales of his glittering political career. A school classroom suddenly seems like an after-dinner speech. He tells them that he’s worked with two really good presidents (Clinton and Obama), but — prepare to cry for dear Rahm — “every chief of staff hates it. It’s the most difficult job in the public arena.”

This is simply laughable, especially when it is also a job that is incredibly well-paid, and which places you at the nexus of so much power. But he isn’t done. “There’s a target on your back,” Emanuel moans to the children. You have to make decisions, “everyone else says you’re an idiot.” He tells them how many meetings he has, and the hellish business of going from one meeting about economic collapse to another about Afghanistan. He pounds fist into palm to demonstrate the non-stop battery of such a high-stakes job.

The very young children are mute, as is the viewer.

Then, most laughably, given the public office he holds and the life he has chosen and ambition that he has nurtured to achieve it, he tells a group of young children that he and President Obama always said they’d set up a t-shirt stand on a Hawaiian beach after they’d finished their strenuous, thankless periods of public office and sell only t-shirts that were medium and white in color.

The children don’t give him the laugh or chuckle his charming shtick demands. His implication is of course that finally this hokey little stand would market something acceptable, after every decision the men made in their public roles was relentlessly criticized. Poor dears. Poor unappreciated toilers. We feel your pain, Rahm.

The rest of Chicagoland moves at a propulsive pace. Marc Levin, one of the series’ creators (who also wrote, directed and co-executive-produced it), told The Daily Beast that such a dramatic city merited a drama-feel to the documentary about it. “People are so interested in House of Cards and Scandal, this is the real story of that.”

Of course what the series doesn’t show is the “soft” politics or necessary grind of anyone’s day, decision-maker or not. Right at the beginning the Chicago of Mayor Daly is invoked, and so the tone of the show is set: this is the city of hard knocks, and fighters going for the knockout. Sports fans holler and whoop in the streets, police chiefs react to outbreaks of shootings, and struggle to cope with the proliferating nature of gang warfare and how young gang members are becoming. Warm weather is dreaded, because that’s when the shootings grow in number.

The documentary does not glamorize violence, but it does glamorize the furious blur of Chicago, which is discordant—because even people with very busy lives and active jobs have moments of calm when they also do valuable work. ButChicagoland isn’t calm, it is deliberately restless to reflect its subject, and as such fails on occasion to observe nuance or the necessarily prosaic nature of governance and leadership. But the documentary-makers would probably, and plausibly, argue they’re making television, not a public information film.

One of the most affecting scenes is when a woman describes the horror and tragedy of losing her partner to a shooting; her daughter was also shot while jumping rope, and survived, though was so seriously injured she has learning difficulties.

The scene with the schoolchildren is so unintentionally and dishearteningly revealing about Emanuel’s ego and self-regard that it throws into sharp relief the sterling work of another public servant the show features — indeed its runaway star, Elizabeth Dozier. While Emanuel disappears into the comforting cocoon of air-conditioned people-carriers, we watch Dozier, the principal of Fenger High School, one of the city’s most challenging schools, demanding and encouraging the best from her students. 56 percent of African-American male students drop out of school in Chicago. “A funeral for a teenager is considered unfortunate, but not unusual,” said Michelle Obama in one speech she gave.

To stop what could be gang-related malingering, Ms. Dozier runs after them, breaking a shoe in the process. She’s a tough, inspiring presence, her commitment to her students and the principle of education is impressive and moving, especially as her school climbs in the education rankings under her stewardship. When Dozier, who is also shown to be a skilled, shrewd networker and boss, arrived in 2009, a student had just been bludgeoned to death; now she watches proudly as a group of young scholars is honored.

The series also features Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old third-grader and already consummate activist who delivers as powerful stump speeches as any adult politician, accusing Emanuel of wrecking schools and communities. “He only cares about his kids, he only cares what he needs, he only cares about himself,” Johnson says of Emanuel. “We are not toys, we are not going down without a fight…This is racism right here.” Ultimately out of 50 schools closed, Johnson’s escapes closure.

The work of the city’s Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is also highlighted, as well as his district commanders. One is hauled over the coals because of a sudden spike in murder rates in his district. The city, we are told, is one of the most segregated — by race, class and wealth—in the country.

Chicagoland attempts to draw links in this vast web. The most affecting aspect of it is that in our increasingly privatized world of the citizen-consumer, drifting around his or her city, shopping and socializing with little regard for their urban fellows, the documentary shows the value of civic life, of living and decision-making collectively, and of demonstrating and fighting back when something seems iniquitous. It also shows the work and value, whatever side they are on, of those involved in making our cities as safe, vibrant and evolving as possible, as budgets are cut, layoffs occur, and those at the sharpest end — our educators and community workers — struggle to maintain a safety net and propel the truly gifted to their best futures.

After watching her in action, I’d say: Elizabeth Dozier for Mayor.