Review: ‘Chicagoland’ gives Windy City a starring role

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a scene from the CNN documentary series "Chicagoland."
(Associated Press)

A correction has been added to this post, as indicated below.

The City of the Big Shoulders — stormy, husky, brawling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding, to use only words Carl Sandburg chose to describe Chicago — is the subject of a new documentary series from CNN.

Beginning Thursday and running for eight weeks, it has been made by the team who made Sundance Channel’s Peabody Award-winning “Brick City,” which focused on charismatic Cory Booker and his adventures as the mayor of Newark, NJ. Chicago, with its colorful history, challenged present and nationally known mayor — Rahm Emanuel, do I have to say? — must have seemed like the logical next step.

A tale of two cities, both of which are Chicago, and one of which is filled mostly with poor black people, the show is a stylistic mutt. CNN calls the Robert Redford-executive produced series a “nonfiction ensemble,” which lets it off a journalistic hook or two.


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As in a reality show, episodes begin “Previously on ‘Chicagoland,’” and end with coming attractions. The tone is often boosterish and inspirational, almost at times a travelogue, with brief nods to Chicago as the home of the blues, several sports teams, improv comedy and poetry slams, before returning to the high murder rate and the mayor’s proposed school closings. The photography is pretty, the colors pop.

The boosterism extends to hizzoner himself, whom narrator Mark Konkol, a Chicago journalist, tends to frame heroically: “Emanuel — well, he’s been at the center of unpopular decisions like this before; he’s never backed down and nobody expects him to start now.”

Or “For Mayor Emanuel, the guy who helped President Obama save the auto industry, bail out the banks and reform healthcare, Chicago’s public school crisis is right in his wheelhouse.” Or, accompanying archival of the future mayor protesting a white power rally: “That’s Rahm Emanuel — young, shirtless and not afraid to confront neo-Nazis and skinheads.”

Emanuel is already a “character” — a familiar but opaque collection of postures, policies, noises and attitudes. There’s no sense that we’re getting either a genuine behind-the-scenes look at the office or going beneath the skin of the man.

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That isn’t to say that the surface is topographically unremarkable, or that his energy is not entertaining. He is quite charming before the right audience. “Have you been quiet and patient?” he asks a room full of small schoolchildren. “Better than the mayor because I’m not quiet or patient.”

If the scenes with Emanuel are interesting at worst, and also at best, those with hands-on, in-the-trenches South Side high school principal Elizabeth Dozier are compelling and full of life; the filmmakers might have just followed her around for a year and had eight hours worth the watching.


Dozier, who has worked hard to create a haven in a war zone, goes the extra mile but knows her limits. When an incarcerated former student blows the second chance she has gotten him, she expresses her love, wishes him luck and shows him the door.

It is somehow not surprising to learn that she is the daughter of a former nun and an ex-con. (In one scene the mayor and the principal speak by phone: “I’m in your corner punchin’,” he says. She shrugs her shoulders afterward in amazement or confusion.)

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Emanuel, as tightly as he controls his message, does not exactly get a pass. Teachers’ union President Karen Lewis calls him “a liar, and a bully” and “the murder mayor,” for the deaths she predicts his school closings will precipitate when kids are forced to walk to new schools through dangerous neighborhoods. Union organizer Joseph McDermott wonders whether Emanuel is “the mayor of the well-to-do or is he the mayor of the 1%. I honestly wonder is there anyone in his social circle who sends their kids to Chicago public schools.”


But there’s no attempt, really, to marshal substantial arguments on either sides. That isn’t the plan.

“Chicagoland” is a mosaic, as befits its many-cultured metropolitan setting — and for better or worse. The series moves fast to get it all in, muscling you with its Big Shoulders and too-present hip-hoppy soundtrack, giving you just enough of its characters — including kids and cops, a doctor, a rapper, a restaurateur — to make you feel you should be getting more of them.

[For the record, March 6, 9:16 a.m.: A previous version of this post described Cory Booker as the mayor of Jersey City. Booker was the mayor of Newark.]




Where: CNN

When: 7 and 10 p.m. Thursday