Review: The Art of the Steal

At best, Don Argott advances David Simon’s art to offer a leaner, meaner template for complex investigative filmmaking.

The Art of the Steal
Photo: Rainbow Media

If there was room left to doubt the ascending impact of The Wire on 21st-century television and film, consider the latest exhibit of its influence, which shifts the epicenter of urban American power brokerage from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Instead of drugs driving the political and economic cityscape, it’s the Barnes Foundation’s collection of impressionist and early modern art, valued in the tens of billions of dollars. Weaving a dense web of interviews, archival footage, and graphics, Don Argott portrays a cabal of politicos and cultural institutions conspiring to legislate the Barnes’s move from its private residence to the tourist heart of the city, possibly breaking the law in the process. Certainly they’re breaking the will of the late Albert Barnes, a prodigious collector and educator who planted the Foundation in suburban Merion to keep it away from the Philly-stines. The conspiring parties are given the Wire treatment with a recurring visual motif: their photos tacked to a police corkboard a la Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. Pretty ballsy considering that these “suspects” include both the sitting governor of Pennsylvania and the mayor of Philadelphia.

The film uses these and other devices (how many more Phillip Glass-inspired pseudo-intrigue soundtracks can we stand?) to such an extent that it threatens to come off as a smoke-and-mirrors act against the tried-and-true demons of political and cultural elitists. The film would rather dismiss today’s art museums as money-grubbing ogres than ask more philosophical questions of how they, stuck in a capitalist-consumerist culture, can possibly fulfill Barnes’s utopian vision of preserving an experience of art both enlightening and intimate. Nonetheless, it’s dazzling to see Argott confidently lead the viewer through a miniseries’s worth of intrigue, spanning several decades and dozens of power players, in under two hours. At best, he advances Wire creator David Simon’s art to offer a leaner, meaner template for complex investigative filmmaking, one that might be put to even better use by a filmmaker with less of an axe to grind.

 Director: Dan Argott  Distributor: Rainbow Media  Running Time: 101 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2009  Buy: Video

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