Maybe I am not the ideal audience for Martin Witz’ Gateways to New York. On the one hand, it’s a documentary about some of the bridges of New York. Since I have absolutely no spatial orientation, I was at a loss as to where these bridges are and which two areas they connect. Here’s an easy question: what does the George-Washington Bridge connect? I only faintly remembered that the answer is New York and New Jersey, maybe because of The Sopranos. And what does the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connect? Aha, see? I have no clue, and if you are not from the Eastern Seaboard, or an acolyte of architecture, you might be as lost as me. There are maps in Witz’ documentary, but they are gone before you can really grasp which bridge we are talking about now.
A dedicated Swiss engineer called Othmar Ammann designed and built both bridges mentioned above and a good number more. He even had a hand in designing the Golden Gate Bridge. He had a mind for what a safe bridge should look like, and how it could solve increasing traffic problems (the New York ferries were crowded up to capacity until there were bridges across the water). He was so good at his job that he was asked to report about the two bridge disasters in Quebec in 1907 and in Tacoma in 1940. He intuited that suspension bridges were the way to go, with lanes for automobiles, maybe even a two-tier, six lane bridge, at a time when everyone in New York still took the train.
For all of his genius and expertise, I don’t think I’ve gotten a grasp of Amman; I know about the engineer, yes, but not enough about the husband and father. If there are no personal entries about the death of his first wife in his diary, so be it, but it’s a gap that a documentary should fill at least partly by asking one of his descendants. I accept that he was a very private person, but there should be statements, by himself and others, that should illuminate his character. There is not enough about that in Witz’ film. If the focus of your doc is not really graspable, then say so, and maybe let us know why.
For all my complaining about where Amman’s bridges are and who the man really was, it’s a good documentary, not too long and not preachy. There are two Mohawk workers who have a lot to say about what it was like to balance at blinding heights, where one step could mean certain death. (Side note: Ammann was the first to eventually have safety nets installed against strong opposition from the authorities.) In January of this year, Witz got the audience award at the Solothurn film festival, which is one of Switzerland’s biggest. It depends on how you look at the film: it’s not only about Ammann and his career, but it’s also not only about the bridges of New York, because Ammann didn’t design and/or build all of them, of course. Witz’ film, for all its good moments, couldn’t make me forget that it sorts of stands in the middle of the bridge, undecided.