In the 1976 movie All the President's Men, Robert Redford played Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal, the greatest newspaper exposé in history. So he tends to get passionate when talking about the state of journalism.
"Entertainment has overtaken real journalism," Redford told an audience at January's Sundance Film Festival. "What we end up with now is sound-bite information, distorted information passing as the truth, too many voices out there interrupting each other, barking like dogs. There's so much noise out there, and it's so sound-bit, you don't hear anything. So you wonder, where are you going to get the truth?"
Redford believes he's doing his small part by getting into what TV executives like to call the "nonfiction programming business" via his Sundance Productions, cofounded with Laura Michalchyshyn in 2012. But when describing his company's first project, Chicagoland, an eight-episode series that debuts March 6 on CNN, Redford prefers a more old-fashioned term. "I believe the real truth can come through documentaries," he says, "because you have the chance, with films like this, to dig in and have more than a second to get information that gets deep into the issue."
While his intentions may be high-minded, there's no question Redford's name gives marquee value to Chicagoland. The series is a key component of CNN president Jeff Zucker's strategy to establish appointment viewing for the channel and make it less dependent on breaking news for ratings.
Chicagoland was directed by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, who also made the acclaimed 2009 Sundance Channel series Brick City, which depicted the efforts of charismatic Newark mayor (now U.S. senator) Cory Booker to turn his city around after decades of poverty and corruption. Chicago provides the filmmakers with a much larger canvas. Its prosperous, glistening downtown has experienced a full-fledged renaissance in recent years, boasting great restaurants with superstar chefs, a thriving music scene, an emerging tech start-up hub and even a major sports championship with its Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks. At the same time, neighborhoods on the West Side and South Side (which some residents refer to darkly as "Chiraq") must cope with shootings and gang violence. The closing of dozens of schools in those neighborhoods has enraged community activists.
Chicagoland, culled from 1,000 hours filmed over eight months in 2013, takes viewers deep into each of those facets of the city, at times becoming a jarring tale of the haves and have-nots. "There are many cities that have a downtown that is flourishing," Levin says. "Then, if you go into some of the outer neighborhoods, it's a different world. It was important that we told some of those stories."
Zucker believes audiences will be drawn to the inhabitants they'll get to know over the show's eight weeks. "Television is about people and characters," he says. "Just because we're doing a series on CNN, there is no exception to that rule." A lot of time is spent with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the profane, pugnacious and supremely confident former White House chief of staff whose popularity with the minority voters who helped get him elected is now in jeopardy over his decision to close schools.
But the show's most captivating personality is Elizabeth Dozier, the tireless principal of Fenger Academy High School, which has been particularly hard hit by the violence in the city's far South Side. The daughter of a convict and an ex-nun, Dozier shows a passion and relentless dedication to improving her school's academic performance while also making it safer — which becomes a ray of hope throughout the series. "I want her to anchor a show for me," says Zucker, perhaps only half joking. "I want her to be my kids' teacher. At every level, this is a woman everyone should come to know and say thank you to."
If Chicagoland draws big ratings, Zucker envisions filmmakers visiting other urban centers to uncover similar stories. "There are great characters in every city in America," he says. "What's not to say we couldn't be somewhere else?"