Motherless Brooklyn Is a Warning About the Dangers of Unchecked Political Power

Edward Norton’s adaptation takes on the legacy of notorious New York City planner Robert Moses.

In a still from Motherless Brooklyn, Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton stare each other down, with a model of New York City on a table between them.
Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn. Warner Bros.

Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s engrossing new film, is based on Jonathan Lethem’s renowned novel about Lionel Essrog, a young detective with Tourette’s syndrome trying to untangle the killing of his mentor and father figure. But its real inspiration lies with author Robert Caro’s work on Robert Moses, the visionary yet ruthless “master builder” who shaped modern New York City in the first half of the 20th century. Like Caro’s work, Norton’s film is a cautionary tale of power left unchecked.

Caro, now America’s preeminent political biographer, was an unknown in his early 30s when he approached the reclusive Moses—then in his late 70s and still an imposing figure—for a series of interviews. In Working, his recent book looking back on his career, Caro recalls those meetings, a couple of which took place in Moses’ office on Randall’s Island. There, Moses would stand in front of a map of New York, a “gigantic” canvas that he would contemplate while wielding a pencil with which he made “big, sweeping gestures over the map, or sharp, precise jabs toward it,” imagining the possibilities. “I saw the genius of the city-shaper,” Caro writes. In the first half of the 20th century, Robert Moses, who held a number of sometimes simultaneous planning positions in the city government, transformed the city’s landscape. If you’ve come into or gone out of New York via a tunnel or bridge, it’s a good bet you have Moses to thank.

But Moses’ ambitions came at a price. Throughout his four decades of mostly unhindered power at the center of New York’s political life, he displaced entire communities to make way for his grandiose vision, often with racist zeal. Caro documented it all, eventually compiling his reporting for his landmark 1975 book The Power Broker. In Working, Caro retraces his coverage, including the dismantling of the predominantly Jewish East Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx, where Moses “demolished a solid mile of six- and seven-story apartment houses” to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. Many in the community were forced to relocate. More chose to leave soon afterward, when the area, Caro says, “became a vast slum.” The people Caro interviewed shared “a sense of profound, irremediable loss.”

When Caro asked Moses about those afflicted, he was met with a sneer. “I can still hear the scorn in his voice,” he writes. “Scorn for those who had fought it, and scorn for me, who had thought it necessary to ask about them.” Caro’s interactions with Moses would shape a lifelong exploration on the nature of political authority and the risks inherent in its abuse.

For his adaptation of Lethem’s novel, Norton builds on Caro’s examination of power by changing the setting from contemporary New York back to the 1950s, and by adding a crucial character to the plot: Moses Randolph, a Robert Moses doppelgänger portrayed with narcissistic glee by Alec Baldwin. Norton’s version of Moses lacks the persuasive charm that Caro found so enthralling in the original. Instead, Baldwin plays him as corrupt, predatory, and heartless, a New York power broker who stops at nothing to keep the steamroller’s wheels churning. “Power is feeling, knowing, that you can do whatever you want, and not one fucking person can stop you,” Randolph says, echoing the darker side of Moses and other, more contemporary examples of impunity.

Norton based Randolph on the historical Moses—“a dark, powerful man,” the actor and director told me during a recent interview—to illuminate those same liabilities of power. “I see him as the quintessential bully,” Norton said. “Too much power truly does warp a person, even a very brilliant person who was once an authentic idealist.” Like Moses, Norton’s Randolph is slowly consumed by political power, trampling on the downtrodden and voiceless as needed. “Like some of today’s bullies and Machiavellian politicians, he and his family benefited from the democratic society that he later scorned and tried to overpower,” Norton explained.

Norton himself plays the protagonist, Essrog, an orphan who slowly discovers his voice (quite literally, since he suffers from a crippling case of Tourette’s syndrome) and emerges as the leader of the Dickensian group of fledgling detectives trying to solve the murder of their mentor. Norton has kept Lionel’s voyage of self-discovery, which he plays with tender intelligence and an almost Chaplin-esque physicality. But he has also added a character trait absent in Lethem’s Lionel. When chasing the truth behind Moses Randolph, Norton’s Lionel becomes less a sleuth than an outraged reporter, digging through clues to discover a pattern of political abuse. As the film progresses, Essrog “finds the motivation to try to act and hold a bully to account,” said Norton. Aiming to uncover a vast conspiracy that goes beyond the original crime, Norton’s Lionel Essrog resembles the young Robert Caro in his search for the truth behind Robert Moses.

Though he didn’t write Randolph in reference to Donald Trump (he finished the script in 2012), Norton doesn’t shy away from the “eerie resonance” that “some of the more salacious and vulgar aspects” might hold in today’s political environment. “We can look back and use the clarity about the past to raise a warning about the present,” Norton told me. “You can experience viscerally what we lost when we let corrupt people move unchecked.” This warning, Norton says, lies at the heart of the movie and the current political debate. “What is our core national character?” Norton asked. “Are we going to make heroes out of bullies and prioritize the achievements of power, or are we going to assert that heroism means having empathy for people’s struggles?”

The question could not be more relevant.