In 2016, filmmaker Emmett Adler and his crew set out to document the state of New York City’s subway system. More than they or anyone else could have imagined would unfold as they continued to capture new developments over the subsequent five years, culminating in End of the Line. Though little over an hour, it packs in an impressive sequence of developments (nearly all of them bad) for the city’s mass transit. It’s a sobering chronicle of how sometimes an institution can appear to be at its breaking point, only for more stresses to reveal just how much worse things can get.
At the core of the film’s story is the shameful game of political buck-passing that state and local leaders have been playing with the MTA for years, with multiple mayors claiming that no progress can be made without the participation of various governors, and vice-versa. No one wants to take responsibility for tackling the problem because that would risk facing the public’s anger if or when things go wrong. Meanwhile, the problem continues to get worse. A thread runs through the documentary suggesting that those in leadership positions tend to eschew any job that is not explicitly and concretely demanded of them, and that the consequences of such callousness will then fall on those who do the actual work.
This theme is demonstrated on a macro level with Andy Byford, a veteran British civil servant who was appointed president of the New York City Transit Authority in 2017, not long after Adler’s crew began production and Andrew Cuomo had declared an honest-to-god state of emergency for the subway. Byford was internationally renowned for his managerial prowess, helping cities like London and Toronto fix their public transit woes. But New York? New York defeated him.
The film has excellent access to Byford, and he becomes, if not its tragic hero, then a consistent avatar for the frustration felt by many over the continual stalling of comprehensive subway renewal efforts.
End of the Line is a decent primer on the essentials of subway logistics, as well as the many potential fixes both obvious and lesser-known that New York could take to ameliorate its trains’ decaying infrastructure, antiquated management systems, and half-assed attempts at renewal. And all of this comes before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which places an even greater strain on these systems and puts many of its on-the-ground employees at extreme risk. Here the film finds the individual faces of its main theme; for these workers, the consequences they face for doing their jobs amidst the callousness of executives could be fatal. The documentary could have easily found greater resonance by spending more time with them on the ground (it’s not as if it’s stretching its running time as it is), but there’s still plenty to aggravate any New Yorker who’s ever been left tapping their foot for a delayed train.
End of the Line will be available on demand June 14.
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