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The Teflon Mayor

Though loosely based on a critical biography, USA’s biopic of our last mayor comes across more as hagiography, as if 9/11 were the only event that defined his thorny tenure.

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Winning: James Woods and Penelope Ann Miller as the mayor and his wife in Rudy.  

When I tell you that Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story omits things some of us would have included, you are unlikely to be flabbergasted. Our former mayor was a piece of work, and it isn’t likely that a single TV movie could contain all his operatic contradictions, especially one that stars a bigfoot actor, James Woods. So what if he had a “kindness deficit”? So does New York.

Wisely, Rudy begins and ends with September 11, 2001. These were, indeed, his finest hours, when he used his symbolic heft to hold and steady all of us. Alone among the many pols scuffling for TV face time before they’d even decided which emotion they wanted to simulate, his expression was guileless, an honest and honorable wound. On the scaffolding of that awful day, the film flashes back into Rudy’s past—from his first meeting Donna Hanover (Penelope Ann Miller) in a Miami studio in 1982 to his unleashing “the dogs of war” on Mafia dons and inside traders in 1985, to his first failed run for mayor in 1989, back when Ray Harding actually had a political party to barter for future favors, to his first term, part government, part obedience training, and then to his second, with Cristyne Lategano and Judith Nathan, not to mention Diallo, Hillary, and prostate cancer. “I’m history,” he tells his limo driver the night of September 10.

One of Rudy’s omissions is his attempted power grab after the heroics of September 11, “to finish the job.” Another is Wayne Barrett’s unkind book, upon which this exceedingly kind movie is ostensibly “based.” A third is civil liberties, but we’ll get back to that.

"James Woods gets the smash-mouth Rudy dead-on, the man with the built-in balcony from which to bark our marching orders."

The James Woods who plays Rudy is more the Woods who played Roy Cohn on HBO than the one who played the radical lawyer Eddie Dodd in True Believer. He gets the smash-mouth Rudy dead-on, the man with the built-in balcony from which to bark our marching orders. What’s missing is the little boy inside the bully, who promised to be nicer to us while undergoing chemotherapy. As the neglected Hanover, Penelope Ann Miller doesn’t get to show much, but she does deliver a parting shot: “You can’t put me out with the trash . . . I’m the problem you can’t put in jail.” As Lategano, Michelle Nolden is both a Slinky and a sword; there is a great scene in the limo when she takes a puff on Rudy’s cigar. The guys, the spear carriers, tiptoe around their feudal liege, as if Woods might punish them the way Rudy scourged his own court when anybody else got too much ink or airtime.

We do see tantrums, and the inciting of a police riot against David Dinkins, and a chill that’s almost reptilian when it comes to, say, dumping Lategano. But Rudy seems to suggest that such passionate mood swings are nothing more than lint in the navel and wax in the ears of a Great Man being grandly operatic. Maybe so. Still, an account of his stewardship might have mentioned that while he was slashing social services and waging war on street vendors, turnstile jumpers, sex clubs, fireworks, and boom boxes, Rudy took no prisoners in the class war or on the protest front.

Even as zoning variances and tax abatements were offered to banks, media conglomerates, and the Stock Exchange, bulldozers plowed under community gardens to make room for yuppie condos, cops were unleashed to invade mosques and commit the periodic no-knock, wrong-address raid on a black or Latino household, and our only mayor did his level best, behind concrete barricades, to secure his homeland by shutting up cabdrivers, public advocates, city councillors, college students, street artists, aids demonstrators, anarchists, Farrakhans, Arafats, New York Magazine, and any other Chicken Little or Tiny Tim who thought out loud without his permission.

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience (March 25, 26, and 27; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13), with Bill Moyers asking the questions, does for the Chinese what the series producer Thomas Lennon did earlier for the Irish in America. We see remarkable archival footage from the Gold Rush to the transcontinental railroad to the Exclusion Act of 1882 to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to World War II, in which China was suddenly an ally against Japan, to the Immigration Act of 1965, ending exclusion, to a new Asian-American identity. Among those we hear from are the activist Helen Zia, the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, and a co-founder of Yahoo!, Jerry Yang.

Regular Joe (March 28; 9:30 to 10 p.m.; ABC) is Judd Hirsch as the grandfather who tends his hardware store there with his son, Daniel Stern, and grandson, John Francis Daley when they aren’t at home in the kitchen taking care of Judd’s great-grandchild while teenage mom Kelly Karbacz goes to school and work. There is a long good-bye in the pilot that yokes “heretofore, posthaste, habeas corpus, Ed Asner” that I found mysteriously funny. Set again, who knows why, in Queens.

Black Sash (March 30; 9 to 10 p.m.; wb) brings Russell Wong back to action-adventure TV, as a former San Francisco cop who runs a martial-arts school and longs to reconnect with his teenage daughter. Some bounty-hunting is involved, but mostly, Russell and some hard young bodies, male and female, kick around their personal problems. Sort of Walker, Texas Ranger meets 21 Jump Street.

Daniel Deronda (March 30, 9 to 10:30 p.m., and March 31, 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is the last novel George Eliot wrote, not as popular as Middlemarch, perhaps because her readers really didn’t want to know about Jewish life in London. Anyway, the same production team that did such a wonderful job on Middlemarch is equally adept here, although the heavy-breathing plot threatens every twenty minutes or so to make us smile in spite of our high-mindedness. With Hugh Dancy as Daniel, who doesn’t know he’s Jewish; Romola Garai as Gwendolen, who has the worst luck in Victorian literature; Hugh Bonneville as Grandcourt, who should never have gone to Italy or sailing; and Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth, the singing mermaid. All this, plus Edward Fox, Greta Scacchi, and Zionism!

Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story
Sunday, March 30;
8 to 10 p.m.; USA.


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