REVIEW

Is CNN's "Giuliani: What Happened to America’s Mayor?" a matter worth pondering right now?

If he weren't so stubbornly inescapable, maybe we'd wonder what (if anything) changed about Rudy Giuliani

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published January 8, 2023 3:30PM (EST)

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Brooks Kraft/Getty Images)

For a moment, contemplate the efficiency of sudden disasters, how a few moments can wipe entire legacies out of existence, leaving a colossal mess that obscures a void waiting to be filled. That metaphor explains the extended political life of Rudolph Giuliani, along with why one might think there was a need to answer the question posed in the title of "Giuliani: What Happened to America's Mayor?"

New Yorkers with long memories could answer that question without subjecting themselves to the four-part documentary series. They'd reply with a curt, "Nothing. He was always this way."

As the CNN series reminds viewers, Giuliani is the same politically ambitious cutthroat he was before 9/11 transformed him from a fading political entity into "America's Mayor," a beacon of stability amid chaos. Journalist Nancy Collins describes him as "the man meeting the moment, and I think he was good at that."

Why should we devote our precious time and headspace to contemplating what happened to a goblin who refuses to go away?

Plenty of others never forgot the man New York-based political anchor Errol Louis refers to as "9/10 Rudy," the mayor who unleashed its police force on Black and brown citizens with intensity, in the name of maintaining public safety. Giuliani gave us the New York immortalized by "Sex and the City" by race-baiting his way into office and pretending that police brutality didn't exist, in the same way he didn't really mean anything when he suggested "let's have a trial by combat" to bloodthirsty MAGA rioters moments before hundreds of them stormed the Capitol building.

Although he was likable enough to host "Saturday Night Live" in 1997 (for what that's worth, since that places him on the same list as Donald Trump and Elon Musk) he's also a brute who views "The Godfather" as the perfect parable for life in politics. "He's a little bit of everybody in that film," says pollster Frank Luntz.

Maybe so. What's changed is that he lost his political panache and the ability to mask his lack of conscience.

"Giuliani" leads by intermingling video from the Jan. 6 insurrection with footage from the 1992 City Hall riot in New York, in which thousands of off-duty cops, many of them drunk, malevolently surged toward the city's seat of power. Both assaults on democratic institutions have Giuliani in common.

Back in 1992, Giuliani was a failed mayoral candidate working the crowd of cops into a frenzy by sending them after the man to whom he lost his bid for office, Mayor David Dinkins. In 2021, he was Trump's flunky, desperate to keep him in power so that he, too, would remain relevant.

At various points in "Giuliani," a card reminds us that a U.S. district court judge ruled that those words didn't rise to the level of inciting violence. CNN contributor John Avlon, Giuliani's former chief speechwriter, emphatically disagrees, saying he enabled an attack on our democracy and tried to overturn an election. "That's just a civic sin that's completely unforgivable."

His sentiment is echoed by many other voices featured in the series, all of whom boast better reputations than the main subject – including Anthony Scaramucci who, like Giuliani, isn't above appearing on whatever reality shows will have him.

We may knock around The Mooch, but at least he isn't entirely unavoidable. That's a major drawback to this series' appeal – why should we devote our precious time and headspace to contemplating what happened to a goblin who refuses to go away?

Only a few days ago he was failing at social media on location at Mar-a-Lago, wishing everyone a happy 2024. His license to practice law has been suspended in Washington D.C. and New York City. He's been slapped with a city phone book's-worth of lawsuits, provided constant fodder for late-night comedians, and given toddlers nightmares by popping out of a bird suit on "The Masked Singer." And yet, he declined multiple requests to participate in this series.

Asking someone to consider Giuliani's moral, intellectual and physical deterioration is akin to inviting them to stare at a slowed-down time-lapse showing Smeagol rotting into Gollum. I mean, sure, if you're a completist, maybe that has an appeal.

Here, we have to agree with Republican consultant and Never Trumper Rick Wilson, who describes Giuliani's ignominious end as "shambolic, crapulous" and "exactly the s**tshow it was going to turn into from the beginning."

From a historical point of view, there's probably some utility to capturing the fetid essence of Giuliani's political drive in four concise chapters, which the show titles "The Myth," "The Mayor," "The Martyr" and "The Madman."  But one questions its necessity, especially right now.

"Giuliani" is produced by Left/Right, the same company that created "The Murdochs," an even-handed yet swaggeringly confident examination of Rudolph Murdoch's empire and his family's dog-eat-dog ethos that managed to be fascinating, aggravating, illuminative and spry in one pass.

Giuliani "has a lost capacity for shame, and shame is a self-regulating function," says columnist Harry Siegel

The series takes a more straightforward approach, which may be a reflection of the producers' esteem for its subject. The Murdochs are notoriously private and opaque but inhumanely shrewd, which challenges a filmmaker to build their plot from many angles, resulting in an impressively choreographed journalistic effort. Giuliani is flat earth, despite his boosters' insistence that he is complex, a term used more than once.

It earns a few noteworthy style points, mainly by framing its subjects in settings that quietly hint at their individuality and their place in the city Giuliani once lorded over. New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel holds court in a very Manhattan-esque bar backed by leather seats and golden orb  lights, where he wisely observes that Giuliani "has a lost capacity for shame, and shame is a self-regulating function."


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Other journalists and political consultants are brought to us from lofts and other elegant if sterile surroundings. The warmest staging is reserved for Amadou Diallo's mother Kadiatou, regally placed in a French baroque room befitting her dignified posture as she haltingly recalls the night in 1999 when New York police officers gunned down her unarmed son. "I was across the ocean in Guinea," she said, later adding that in their final conversation he told her, "I'm happy. I have saved enough money. I saved $9,000 and I'm ready to go to college. Mom, I'm going to college."

"That was his last words to me," she said. "We were denied justice. My son was denied his dream."

Never forget that also happened on Giuliani's watch.

There's a lost opportunity here to more fully examine the media's compulsion to cleanse his reputation and pretend his many political sins committed before 9/11 didn't matter. We see Oprah enthusiastically introduce him, for crying out loud – but then, she did the same for Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and other fools and con men she probably regrets platforming. Her moments in the series, along with Jon Stewart's, Lorne Michaels' and others', have less punch than the many observations made by writers, politicians, and figures like Al Sharpton who marvel and fume at the dangerous tragicomedy Giulani's time in the limelight represents.

"He's just fallen so far, and he keeps falling," says Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman. "So the only thing that kinda ties it all together is that people are still talking about him. Whether he's going up or going down, he's in the conversation. And maybe that's what it's all about for him."

The rest of us have other calamities worth paying attention to. Unfortunately, he's probably connected to some of the most significant of them, leaving it up to us to decide which matters more, examining what happened to America's mayor or keeping an eye on what's going to happen next as a result of the damage he's caused.

"Giuliani: What Happened to America's Mayor?" debuts with two back-to-back episodes on Sunday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on CNN, concluding with the remaining two episodes on Sunday, Jan. 15.

 


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland


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