March 17, 2022

CURIOUSLY, THIS HEADLINE ISN’T ABOUT BILL DE BLASIO OR ANDREW CUOMO: The psychopath who wrecked New York. Robert Moses, responsible for so much of the city’s architecture and infrastructure, played the humble public servant, yet he despised the poor.

Though there is talk of a Netflix series, there is still no film about this extraordinary man. The Bridge Theatre, however, has taken up his story. Nicholas Hytner is directing a new play the theatre has commissioned from David Hare. ‘It’s the greatest work of non-fiction I’ve ever read,’ says Hytner of Caro’s book. ‘The first thing you realise is that there isn’t a play in the Caro book because it’s just too immense. The play David has written is narratively narrower than the book. It’s about who Moses is, what he stands for, and what might resonate for audiences today.’ Ralph Fiennes will play Moses. Hytner reckons ‘that slightly mad glint in his eye’ should come in useful. Hare, incidentally, has form at writing villains. Back in 1985, he co-invented a fictitious newspaper tycoon, Lambert Le Roux, for his comedy Pravda. Anyone who saw it will remember Anthony Hopkins, fists balled, face jutting, like a human mastiff: ‘Who are you? You’re fired.’

‘This is a much subtler play than Pravda,’ says Hytner. ‘It’s not a big, ribald epic. It’s a more private play.’ It presumably helps that villains are all the rage and good box office? ‘I wouldn’t say we are doing this just because Moses was a villain. But it is true – if you get a villain right, it always works.’ Moses was actually a most sophisticated man. He was a visiting Rhodes scholar at Oxford who wrote a book about the British civil service. He loved the English poets. He was a big Dr Johnson fan and he knew screeds of Shakespeare by heart. Throughout his life, he was dapper, handsome, always the perfect host, always civil to his wife.

It is the case against Moses that makes the book so gripping. Moses used the grovelling New York press to smear and ruin those who crossed him. New York’s succession of mayors and governors were ultimately all in his power. He became indispensable. But it’s Moses’s racism that is the most potent charge against him today. According to Caro, he designed bridges too low to allow buses – the only form of transport for the under-paid minorities – to leave the city to get to his lovely beach park on Long Island. His contempt was revealed in little details. He had decorated the ‘comfort stations’ in Riverside Park with curling wrought-iron waves. But in the Harlem section alone the decorations are monkeys. Of the 255 playgrounds he built in the city in the 1930s, Harlem got just one. He also demolished swathes of perfectly good housing – with no regard for the evicted – for multi-lane expressways that choked up with traffic as soon as they opened. He left the city’s subway system to rot and spurned the idea of modern light railways, even to the airport. The city on his long watch became an Autogeddon of fuming cars and fuming drivers.

The “racist bridge” stuff was debunked last year after Pete Buttigieg told a CNN interviewer that he was laser-focused — not on fixing supply chain issues, but eliminating the “racism physically built into some of our highways.” Two days later, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler very reluctantly admitted that the DNC-MSM’s defense of Buttigieg comments was a racist bridge too far: Washington Post fact-check admits it was wrong for ‘knee jerked’ defense of Buttigieg’s racist bridge comments.

There has been some revisionism and Moses’s achievements are now viewed in a better light. In particular, the anecdote about the parkway bridges has been increasingly questioned, along with other details in [Robert] Caro’s book,” Kessler wrote.

One historian told the Post that “Moses did nothing different on Long Island from any parks commissioner in the country” because all parkways had low bridges at the time.

“Caro is wrong,” a separate historian emailed to the Post, noting anyone could access the beach.

Other historians disagree in the polarizing tale, but the Post’s in-house fact-checker feels “The Bottom Line” is that the liberal newspaper shouldn’t have been so quick to defend Buttigieg.

“Obviously this cannot be easily resolved. Caro quotes one of Moses’s top aides as saying the height of the bridges was done for racist reasons, but increasingly that story has been questioned as not credible,” Kessler wrote. “Buttigieg should tailor his remarks to reflect what is historically unimpeachable — and we should be more careful to double-check on the latest views of historians. Even a Pulitzer Prize-winning book is not always the last word on a subject.”

But assuming it has decent production values, and doesn’t simply use phony-looking CGI to recreate mid-century Manhattan, I’d love to see a film starring Ralph Fiennes as Moses.

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