In his masterful 2002 documentary, Man on Wire, James Marsh travelled the world to capture the image of Philippe Petit, who, as documented by Marsh, executed the stunt that made him a household name: He, along with a motorized ladder, made it across the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on a wire, thousands of feet above the city.
Marsh has now turned his camera to one of the countercultural innovators, the young Robert Moses, who was instrumental in creating the one-two punch of what would become legendary cultural powerhouses. In “Human Capital,” a profile of Moses by filmmaker Sebastian Junger, the landscape is much the same: a sense of openness to the present moment and to the imagination, tempered by the iconic power of four-wheeled metal.
The opening scene is classic documentary: A young man offers a lavish gift to his buddy, who plays badminton with him in Central Park. The film follows the friend’s physical decline from sports-dominance to curdled depression, as well as his descent into the depths of the 462 Bedford Avenue liquor store that he owns and operates on Coney Island. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” he says of the decline, prompting one of Junger’s most eloquent sentences on why that seems so devastating. “To recover, he would have to move to Central Park, and that’s too far away from his kids.”
The following montage of nine years is simply breathtaking: Muscles grow in sticks out the window. Planes land at LaGuardia. The player races around his Williamsburg apartment on his lawn mower. Double Zero’s “Young, Wild and Free” blares, a narrative that captures the dizzyingly fast-paced energy of the urban world, where people and machines (and I mean machines) move around one another at breakneck speed. That energy is conveyed even more spectacularly in the evening sky, when the lights and sound booms from the building signal the sudden onset of darkness: The outside of the camera in which Junger is perched shift into spotlight for the first time in more than eight years.
As the sun slides below the horizon, New York changes into the city that Junger feels it should be: It is not a cathedral, and yet the views are deeply connected to faith in one’s own identity, as well as a deep-rooted faith in the natural world. It seems fitting that Junger should focus the film on Moses, a man who nearly died, with a painful roof collapse in 2007, and who now cannot walk or see, but who aspires to more. An impressive array of great athletes — and filmmakers — grace the late Auggie as he attempts to live a life that now threatens to be dulled, as well as in a city of flickering lights and planes.
After all, the anonymous New Yorker in your neighborhood is probably just as much a part of the city’s enchantment as you are. “Human Capital” captures the power of connectivity in all its glorious variety.