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MOVIE REVIEW

Attacking Giuliani, awkwardly

Kevin Keating's documentary "Giuliani Time" has an ax to grind and wields it with dull-edged force. The movie badly wants to knock the former New York City mayor off the pedestal that Sept. 11 put him on, and it even has the ammunition to do so.

So scattershot are its attacks, though, and so beholden to an unexamined urban radicalism that here looks alternately pious and smug, that the film ends up preaching only to the converted. Too bad; with Giuliani possibly readying a 2008 presidential run, we could use a good gloves-off reality check.

"Giuliani Time" plays more like a rant, and a poorly focused one at that. It opens with the apotheosis of its subject's post-9/11 rise: Rudy's speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, during which he shamelessly pandered to the throng by claiming he turned to police commissioner Bernard Kerik during the World Trade Center attacks and said, "Thank God George Bush is our president."

There's an opening there to explore the man's knack for political opportunism, but "Giuliani Time" quickly jumps into the past for a jumbled precis of his early years -- cue random footage of FDR, Ebbets Field, and HUAC hearings. When the young Giuliani is hired in 1981 as associate attorney general, the film gets back on track: as the Reagan administration's pit bull during the Haitian boat-people crisis, Giuliani traveled to Baby Doc Duvalier's island paradise and actually said on his return, ``There is no political repression in Haiti today."

In his next job, as US attorney in New York during the late 1980s, Giuliani was an extremely effective force against mobsters, crooked politicians, and Wall Street weasels; ``Giuliani Time" acknowledges this briefly and dwells on Rudy's gift for camera-hogging.

It's when he ascends to the mayor's office in January 1994 that the film presses its attack, but it's a hopelessly emotional one. Intercutting the inaugural speech with the angry protests of AIDS activists and homeless advocates tells us only that they didn't like Giuliani and little about why. (Keating just assumes we'll share his outrage.)

``Giuliani Time" assembles a stellar roster of talking heads: Village Voice writer and Giuliani biographer Wayne Barrett, ex-police commissioner William Bratton, ex-schools commissioner Rudy Crew, political rivals David Dinkins and Ruth Messinger. It's especially interesting to hear from academic George Kelling, an architect of the ``broken windows" theory that posits if a city addresses smaller crimes, the bigger crimes control themselves.

Initially, Giuliani rode that tactic to success, banning squeegee men (all 50 of them) and shooing the homeless into the shadows. Crime rates plummeted (they'd already begun to during the Dinkins administration), and, not coincidentally, complaints about police abuse skyrocketed. The movie awkwardly but tellingly marshals a case against the Giuliani police state, referencing the horrific Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo scandals and increased random searches of young black men.

Keating just as often overplays his hand, though. Film of Giuliani responding roughly to an abusive radio-show caller cuts to a recent interview with the caller himself; he has Parkinson's disease and we're meant to be shocked that Rudy would stoop to insulting a man whose condition he was clearly unaware of.

In another scene, Keating shows wealthy Park Slope residents pelting a poster of the mayor with dung -- riffing off Giuliani's hamhanded handling of a Brooklyn Museum show -- and all that comes across is the self-satisfied certainty of F-train liberals.

In its final minutes, ``Giuliani Time" attends to the mayor's fascinating public meltdown in 2000 -- cancer scare, mistresses, withdrawal from the Senate race -- but hardly addresses his remarkable rehabilitation a year later, when he sounded exactly the notes of sorrow and mourning we needed during and after 9/11. There's opportunism and then there's doing the right thing at the right place at the right time, and Keating acknowledges the difference by not mentioning it.

The worst aspect of partisan filmmaking is that it can't pull back to see where it's overreaching, or where it might be useful to disengage from righteous anger to address larger conclusions. (The best aspect, of course, is the passion.) One walks away from ``Giuliani Time" with no understanding of what makes Rudy tick -- what fuels the man's weird mixture of political savvy, hall-monitor primness, and love of control. In the coming years, we may need that understanding. Keating just hands us the dung and hopes we'll let fly.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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