Maybe my expectations for the ESPN mini-series The Bronx is Burning were too high; not because I have Jonathan Mahler's book, Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx is Burning on which this dramatization was based, but because I have such vivid memories of the events chronicled in both. I was not quite 9 years-old when the New York Yankees took on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1977 World Series, but like so many kids growing up in and around the Big Apple, I was a Yankees fan. I also remember the news reports about the .44 Caliber Killer, later known as the Son of Sam, and even though he was killing people over an hour-long train ride away from where I lived, me and all my friends were all terrified he was going to come after us. And I remember the heatwave and the blackouts and the mayor's race of New York City, and so, as unfair is my expectations may have been, I was waiting for The Bronx is Burning to recapture some of the awe and wonder of what it was like to be a kid growing up just outside of New York City in 1977.
Mahler's book is a details-rich examination of New York City in 1977. Using the '77 Yankees as the focal point of his history lesson, Mahler explores a series of seemingly unrelated events that ultimately are tied to together through the simply unifying element that all took place in New York, and all set the tone for what was to be a monumental year. In the briefest recap of 1977, it was the year heavy-hitter Reggie Jackson came to play for the Yankees, after the Bronx Bombers won the 1976 Pennant, but loss the World Series. Jackson was built up to be a superstar player that would deliver the Yankees a World Series championship. At that time, the Yankees were managed by Billy Martin, an emotionally volatile man who seemed to always be at odds with the equally volatile owner of the team, George Steinbrenner. This trio of powerful-yet-insecure egomaniacs would prove to be a combustible mix of ingredients that resulted in explosions nearly every day. While all of this was going on, a serial murderer known as the .44 Caliber Killer was claiming victims in the borough of Queens for what was rapidly approaching a full year. The city as a whole was gripped in fear, and police had no leads. By the summer of 1977, the worst heatwave in recorded history was ravaging New York. As if things couldn't get any worse, a massive power failure resulted in a blackout that shut down the entire city, leading to looting and rioting that left much of the city looking like a war zone. And, as if all of that was not enough, there was a fierce mayoral race going on as well.
Produced as an eight-episode mini-series, The Bronx is Burning focuses primarily on the Yankees and their journey to the championship; everything else is reduced to a minor aside used as little more than a distraction to aid in transition from scene to scene. The one exception, of course, is the manhunt to find the Son of Sam, but even that doesn't get the sort of attention it deserves.
Episode 1: The Straw
--The Bronx is Burning starts off with the legendary Yankees versus Red Sox game at Fenway Park, where Billy Martin (John Turturro) and Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) almost traded punches on national television. From there, the episode goes back in time to 1975, offering a Cliffnotes history lesson of how Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt) came to hire Martin on as team manager, and how Jackson came to join the team. With the three primary characters introduced, and establishment of the .44 Caliber Killer's murder spree in Queens, The Bronx has everything it needs in place to tell its story. Unfortunately, the story never really grows beyond this episode. Jackson, Martin and Steinbrenner are pretty as they will be through the next seven episodes--broadly painted characters that are revealed to be an emotionally unbalanced prick, an intellectual, self absorbed prick, and a loudmouth, bullying prick, respectively.
Episode 2: Team in Turmoil
--The Yankees start to find a comfortable groove, despite tension created by Jackson's superstar status. Meanwhile, the .44 Caliber Killer, now rechristened as Son of Sam, continues to keep the city gripped in fear. By now, even though this is only the second episode, we can see a reoccurring pattern: Steinbrenner fighting with Martin, Martin fighting with Steinbrenner, and Jackson whining about being misunderstood. By now, all three lead characters are shaping up to be not particularly likeable. The big surprise of the episode is the emergence of Yankees' catcher Thurmon Munson (Erik Jensen) as the most likeable character on the show.
Episode 3: Time for a Change?
--Reggie Jackson comes across as an insecure baby, and all you can think about is whether or not you can handle five more episodes of his proclamations of being misunderstood, Martin getting pissed off, Steinbrenner getting pissed off, and the two of them constantly fighting. Brief moments with the other players like Munson and Bucky Dent (Evan Hart) are quickly becoming the highpoint of the series. As the repetitive dynamic of the Jackson/Martin/Steinbrenner relationship starts getting old, you begin to think about how much better the series would be if it was told from Thurmon Munson's point of view.
Episode 4: The Seen Commandments
--Yes, it's official; the series has become old and tiresome. How many times can we watch the same old thing? Even the much-welcome distraction of the police hunting the Son of Sam has gotten old. First, we get a quick intro of some unsuspecting couple making happy small-talk, then the killer opens fire. After that, the cops scratch their heads and bemoan the lack of clues in the case.
Episode 5: CAUGHT!
--Finally, things get a little more interesting. Taking a bit more of a break from the Yankees storyline, The Bronx chronicles how David Berkowitz, a postal worker, was captured for the Son of Sam killings. The bad news is that with the killer now caught, The Bronx is Burning no longer has a subplot to defer to. The power outage, ensuing blackout, and massive looting was covered in an earlier episode, and the mayoral race is only nominally mentioned, meaning there's three entire episodes of nothing but the on-going trials and tribulations of Jackson, Martin and Steinbrenner.
Episode 6: The Game's Not As Easy As It Looks, Fellas
--The heatwave is over. The Son of Sam has been caught. Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner continue to fight, while Reggie Jackson continues to be misunderstood.
Episode 7: Past Combatants
--See the description of Episode 6. The Yankees make it to the World Series, but for some reason there is another episode left to go.
Episode 8: Mr. October
--Martin and Steinbrenner keep on fighting, but stop long enough to rejoice when the misunderstood Jackson is finally understood after hitting three homeruns in Game 6 of the World Series, leading the Yankees to a victory over Los Angeles. It's over. Thankfully.
On paper The Bronx is Burning must have seemed like a good idea (and in fact, on paper, as a book, it was a good idea). But as a television mini-series, the whole affair never quite comes together. Clocking in at almost six hours, things begin to get repetitive after the first two episodes, and everything that follows afterwards feels a lot like padding. How many times can we watch Martin and Steinbrenner fight? How many times can we watch Jackson say something that makes people hate him? How many times can we watch three complex men portrayed as caricatures that have little by way of development or character growth throughout most of the film?
Maybe my problem was that I watched the entire series in two three-hour sittings, and it wasn't meant to be watched all at once. I don't know. But what I do know is that The Bronx is Burning never really captures the magic of the 1977 World Series. Even though history has told us the outcome of those games, it is possible to create a sense of tension and wonder over who will be victorious. But that never comes. We never get so caught up in the magic of the filmmaking that we forget that we know what is going to happen, and so we begin to just sit around and impatiently wait for the inevitable outcome of Jackson hitting those three homeruns. But even more sad is the fact that the series never captures that unique quality of what makes New York City such an incredible place.
The story chronicled in Jonathan Mahler's book would have been better served by a documentary, rather than a dramatized recreation. It is always frustrating to watch productions based on true events that actually think they can improve on real life. You see it with films like Ali or Lords of Dogtown, which simply can't hold a candle to documentaries like When We Were Kings or Dogtown and Z-Boys. The Bronx is Burning is a lot like those other films, in that it seems to think that "created" reality is more compelling that "plain" reality. If The Bronx is Burning were to have simply been content with telling the story, rather than manufacturing it, perhaps it would been less repetitive and more entertaining.
The Bronx is Burning is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film utilizes a significant amount of older archival footage, and the contrast between this footage and what was shot for the film can be rather glaring. Personally, the difference in the look of the footage did not bother me. What bothered me were all the scenes that were clearly shot against a green screen. Hasn't CGI progressed to the point where we should not be able to tell that the background shots of people in Yankee Stadium are fake?
The Bronx is Burning is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound mix is average at best, but at least once during each episode there would be a line or two of dialog I could not make out because the background noise was interfering.
There is an entire third disc of supplementary material, including deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, and seven webispodes, each running just under two minutes. The webisodes are pretty entertaining, probably because they don't feature any of the main characters, or any of the tiresome bickering and whining that pads out much of the actual episodes. "On the Set" (22 min.) is an entertaining, if not standard, behind-the-scenes feaurette. A quartet of interviews with George Steinbrenner (11 min.), Reggie Jackson (9 min.), Billy Martin's son, Billy Jr. (10 min.), and John Turturro (7 min.) give a bit more insight and emotional depth to the film, but ultimately leave you wondering why this wasn't a documentary instead. That question arises two more time during the "Stories of '77" featurettes, The Fenway Brawl and The Straw That Stirs the Drink. Between these two short docs, the interviews, and the wealth of archival footage used throughout the series, the producers of The Bronx is Burning were well on their way to having a great documentary. Instead, they made this mediocre mini-series.
I really wanted to like this series, and that's not to say that I hated it. But I was often bored and overall disappointed by what I saw. Again, I think that if I had watched an episode a night over the course of eight nights, I might have liked The Bronx is Burning a bit more. But that is not really a good thing, because what that means is that as an over-arching story, the series does not stand up. Instead of having the feeling like you're watching an epic, six-hour movie, you feel like you are watching eight episodes of a show that often times repeats itself.
Feel free to give it a shot if you feel so inclined. But you'll be better served reading the book.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]