He divided a city. He united a nation.
When he stepped out onto that Manhattan sidewalk early Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001, soon to be ex-mayor Rudolph "Rudy" Giuliani was not prepared for what he saw: the World Trade Center, the two tallest buildings in America (and at one time, the world) were smoldering, flames and smoke pouring out of gaping wounds in their mighty steel structures. Immediately, as if by instinct, Giuliani took control of the circumstance and through the course of several difficult and trying days, he lead his city (and as an indirect result, the entire nation) out of its horrified shock and back onto the slow road to recovery and redemption. It was a shining moment and a fitting end to a career that had seen as many of said triumphs as miserable defeats. From his stint as a prosecutor for the Justice Department, where he spearheaded the undermining of New York's mafia to his uncovering of the Michael Milken junk bond scandal, Giuliani was known as a tough as nails believer in the law. But on a personal level, he was also a needy, insular man who gravitated to those who would give unconditionally without demanding much in return. This detachment devastated his marriage to media personality Donna Hanover and caused personal embarrassment from New York's famous tabloid press. Still, he is today an enigmatic figure who during his tenure split his city down the middle with a "love him or hate him" polarizing persona. For Rudy Giuliani, acceptance was not as important as justice. Unfortunately, he did not always practice what he preached.
Some may know him from his frequent appearances in the press over the last twenty years. Still others may only recognize him as the guy who was on Letterman every once in a while. Then there are those whose first exposure to this ex-mayor of New York was during the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. There may even be a few of you out there that actually followed his exploits as the Big Apple's big boss; from cleaning up the sin and sex of 42nd Street to moving his mistress into the mayor's mansion; from the confrontations with Al Sharpton to the denouncement of the dung covered Virgin Mary art in a Brooklyn museum. One thing you can definitely say about Rudolph "Rudy" Giuliani is that he has left an indelible mark on not only the greatest city in the world, but on the greatest nation as well. Now, thanks to a well-meaning TV movie from the USA Network, we get a historical docudrama about this flamboyant, fearless leader. As anchored by the brilliant performance of James Woods in the title character, who gets to the core of Giuliani's persona without resorting to impressions or imitation, Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story is your typical biopic made more significant by the events it covers. Yes, there is the standard tawdry bedroom balderdash that sells most tell-all cinematic confessionals. And at times we do leap over important topics (the whole 42nd Street issue) to steamroll into more "sensational" tabloid fodder. Still, this absorbing film does its best to present the inscrutable political figure in a warts and all fashion.
And again, thanks to James Woods, we do get to see a very three-dimensional portrait of the man. Woods has a genuine knack for nailing burning intensity, a smolder under the surface just waiting to be unleashed. Giuliani did not tolerate fools or critics lightly or well, and Woods is wonderful at channeling that rage into controlled, pinpoint outbursts. He doesn't really look like the famous mayor (more often that not, you are thinking of Byron De La Beckwith or Roy Cohn), but he does manage to capture his manic mannerisms and body language well. Director Robert Dornhelm, a veteran of several made for TV movies, does an excellent job of portraying Manhattan in all its pre-9/11 glory and all its post-attack devastation. He blends many film elements, both real and staged, to great effect, and there are gorgeous night shots of the skyline in abundance. The script by Stanley Weiser (from a book by Wayne Barrett) tends to be a tad too cursory, never really getting to the meat of many of the issues the mayor faced. Nor do we get any major interpersonal complications between Rudy and his women. There is a sense that this man was a user, someone who gleaned what he needed out of his wives and affairs until they no longer proved reliable or viable. Some more depth, without pandering to scandal, would have made this an incredible look at a very complicated man. As it stands, it's up to Woods to fill in the blanks, and he does so nicely.
Still, there is a main sticking point that many may have with this otherwise entertaining film. The awful events of 9/11 are used as sort of bookends and foundation for the entire story. We begin the night before the attack and then experience our first flashback to Rudy's past as the mayor discovers the unimaginable damage the terrorists have inflicted. Throughout the running time of Rudy we constantly leapfrog back to that very dark day in US history, and at times it seems perfectly acceptable. This was, after all, a disaster of monumental proportions and in many ways the singular event Giuliani needed to bring out his best and most honest leadership skills. But there are other times, like after he breaks up with his first mistress or when he announces his legal separation to his wife at a press conference (without telling her first, mind you), that the return to Ground Zero is inappropriate and almost tasteless. It seems to excuse Giuliani's poor interpersonal skills by saying "yeah, he's a louse, but he handled this well, didn't he?" The memory of those who died in the World Trade Center attack deserve better than to be a buffer for an ill-tempered philanderer's indiscretions. Still, the flashback technique is very well done (as is the mixing of film, video, archival footage, and newly shot matching material), and if you can remove yourself from the horrifying, painful memories of that day, Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story will be a provocative, powerful, and ultimately rewarding experience. Others though may find it a little too soon to be using 9/11 to tell only one man's story.
This is made even more painfully clear when one turns to the bonus content on the DVD. Added as a special feature is the very moving and powerful History Channel presentation The Day the Towers Fell. Told almost exclusive from the perspective and pictures of photographers and rescue workers covering the tragedy and its aftermath, this one-hour documentary is startling in its imagery and heartbreaking in the stories it tells. Even two years after the horrible events of 9/11, this material is difficult to watch and forget (the photos of those people who chose to jump will haunt you for weeks afterwards). It is such a touching tribute that the device of using the tragedy to illustrate key points in Giuliani's life becomes even more disorienting. Visually, the movie is offered in either a full screen or non-anamorphic widescreen version. While the material may scream out for a letterboxed viewing, you may want to stick with the full screen. There is a lot of new footage and home video of the events of 9/11 utilized, and the widescreen matte cuts off the tops and bottoms of images. Sound wise, the Dolby Digital 2.0 is serviceable, but nothing extraordinary. As are the filmographies, biographies, and timeline material offered. It's interesting, but more on the superficial than specific side.
There is no denying that the actions of Rudy Giuliani, both overall and as mayor on that fateful fall day, helped guide New York City and American back from the brink of terrorism-based fear and back into the business as usual belief system. Strong guidance can do that. But to try and forgive a lifetime of poor personal judgments based on the events of 9/11 is disingenuous. Rudy Giuliani was a complicated man. Rising to the occasion doesn't forgive that. Thankfully, most of the time, Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story doesn't either.
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