Nose for conflicts gives CNN series ‘Chicagoland’ a whiff of authenticity

SHARE Nose for conflicts gives CNN series ‘Chicagoland’ a whiff of authenticity

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During the eight months that documentary film crews spent in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and tailing him around town, many smart alecks of city politics joked behind Emanuel’s back that Hollywood super-agent brother Ari Emanuel must have been working behind the scenes.

Did you have to be a City Hall cynic to speculate that the inspiration for HBO’s “Ari Gold” would not content himself with hosting big-money Beverly Hills fund-raisers for his brother’s re-election campaign?

Was it so wild to imagine Ari Emanuel would use his unmatched Tinseltown clout to set up a nationally televised hagiography of the mayor?

If a West Coast power broker can’t use his pull to nudge his fly-over town mayor of a brother closer to the White House, then what’s it come to in this world where everything is fodder for slickly produced “reality” TV?

Well, as in so many would-be conflict-of-interest controversies in Illinois politics, the filmmakers who produced the upcoming “Chicagoland” series for CNN want to reassure everyone there’s no back-scratching going on here.

Despite their being — you guessed it — clients of Ari Emanuel’s William Morris Endeavor agency.

According to a Hollywood Reporter article this week, directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin felt “awkward” and “decided to ask that their agency not represent them in the deal so as to avoid a conflict of interest when covering Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, brother of WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel. The agency agreed with the decision.”

As their work premiered at the Sundance film festival in the Utah ski mecca of Park City, the directors said they were confident “Chicagoland” is so fair and balanced it will irk the mayor and Hizzoner’s most vehement critics alike.

I haven’t seen the film, having spent far more time shoveling snow than gliding over it on skis. Given the pedigree of the award-winning directors, I think we can be confident “Chicagoland” will be a far more realistic and thought-provoking reflection of Chicago today than Bravo’s new “100 Days of Summer.”

It sure looks like Levin and Benjamin learned a lot about Chicago politics from their time with Emanuel. Asking WME to momentarily recuse itself from promoting their careers was a move worthy of Billy Banks.

Banks was the mild-mannered alderman and Democratic committeeman from the city’s northwestern edge, a part of town most visitors only see from planes landing at or leaving O’Hare Airport.

Campaign troops loyal to Banks and his late brother Sam were among the patronage armies amassed to help put Rahm Emanuel in Congress in 2002. Bill Banks’ 36th Ward Democrats also were out collecting nominating-petition signatures to put Emanuel on the 2011 mayoral ballot.

But Banks most profoundly affected the city as chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee. At virtually all of the panel’s meetings during his 20 years as Council zoning czar, Banks piously announced he was stepping out of the room temporarily whenever the committee was scheduled to hear the cases of property developers discerning enough to employ the law firm of his brother and his brother’s son.

At the height of the city’s most recent building boom, it wasn’t uncommon for dapper Jimmy Banks to appear on behalf of a dozen clients in a single zoning committee meeting. His uncle would say something to the effect of, “I see my handsome nephew is in the room.” Then he’d hang out for a short while in the room behind the Council chambers.

Despite not being able to count on his uncle’s vote, Jimmy Banks would sway the aldermen who remained in the chambers.

Who could fairly question the nephew’s legal acumen or the uncle’s ethics? All you really could judge them by was the massive condo towers and castle-like houses that Jimmy Banks’ clients went on to build, often leaving their neighbors literally in the shadows.

Likewise, for those of us who couldn’t jet off to Sundance, we’ll have to wait until “Chicagoland” airs on March 6 to see if it’s a portrayal of the Chicagoland we know.

We’ve all seen enough movies to not judge a film by its trailer, but the snippets of “Chicagoland” visible beyond Sundance suggest it will present Emanuel and top cop Garry McCarthy as badder dudes than Bruce Willis’ character in the “Die Hard” movies.

“A city is only as strong as its leader,” reads the poster for the eight-part series, which features a photo of a resolute-looking Rahm.

David Axelrod, Emanuel’s longtime friend and former co-worker in President Barack Obama’s White House, arranged for the crew to have “extraordinary access” to the Chicago mayor, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

At Sundance, Robert Redford, the executive producer of “Chicagoland,” said, “I met Rahm Emanuel only once … I was extremely impressed with him considering what he’s up against.”

The “Chicagoland” directors previously produced “Brick City,” an award-winning “docu-series” about Newark and Cory Booker, the New Jersey city’s young mayor. Booker has said the show (which also starred McCarthy, when he worked in Newark) was not a propaganda piece that glorified him, that he took “a lot of blows” in it. Still, “Brick City” must not have hurt the national fund-raising efforts for Booker’s recent, successful U.S. Senate campaign.

Chicago’s mayor says he truly doesn’t hope to move from the fifth floor to the Oval Office. So it shouldn’t matter to him how the image he projects in “Chicagoland” plays in Park City, Peoria or anywhere else it’s seen.

What will continue to matter more deeply to real Chicagoans is how this Emanuel brother’s administration does at removing the snow and the guns from Peoria Street long after the filmmakers have left town.

Power in Hollywood not being all that different from Chicago’s City Hall, “Chicagoland” better not be too hard on the mayor or the filmmakers could have to look for new representation for their next project.

For more political analysis, visit our Early & Often blog at: suntm.es/politicsblog.

Email: dmihalopoulos@suntimes.com

Twitter: @dmihalopoulos

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