Anyone who has ever lived in New York City surely has plenty of feelings about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, better known as the MTA. NYC’s subway system has many lines and just as many problems, and it’s also key to how the city moves. A pre-pandemic estimate of serving six million riders per day just begins to hint at its scope, and how its inability to function as it’s meant to can severely hinder the productivity and livelihood of the largest city in the United States. End of the Line checks into the Big Apple beginning several years ago to underline just a few of the most serious issues keeping the subway from being everything it could and should be.
It’s not difficult to find footage and sound bites to make the MTA seem entirely ineffective, but this documentary doesn’t make its arguments lazily. Instead, it tells its story as a fast-paced thriller, one involving warring parties whose interest in squabbling with each other adversely affects those actually impacted. Governor Andrew Cuomo serves as an ominous narrator of sorts, dramatically uttering proclamations that don’t show him in a very flattering light, and he takes a firm position of only occasional and convenient responsibility for the MTA, which he defers to Mayor Bill de Blasio when he doesn’t see claiming ownership over the subway as an advantage in the moment.
The concept that trains first exhibited decades ago at the World’s Fair are still in service may not surprise some, but one thing seems abundantly clear, as confirmed by one expert: what New York City is demanding of its subway system, it cannot handle. The announcement of the shutdown of the L train is met with particular dismay since it will affect people and businesses to the point of needing to move or close, respectively, and even worse than that is the almost haphazard decision to abandon the project, seemingly only as a public relations move with no care for the people affected.
While End of the Line does not paint a positive picture of the MTA, it avoids cheap shots like the disturbingly frequent rat sightings and other general uncleanliness. Instead, it examines what appeared to be a sincere effort to revamp the system, with the appointment of Andy Byford as its president, bringing in his knowledge and experience from working in transit in Toronto to attempt to rehabilitate the MTA. His journey is an intriguing and ultimately frustrating one, akin to waiting much longer than expected for a subway train or hearing an announcement that the train you’re already on is suddenly going express, passing by your intended stop.
Like so many other things across the globe, the ultimate direction of End of the Line is affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. While that could not have been the intention of filmmaker Emmett Adler, in his directorial debut, it serves as an unavoidable modifier that completely altered the metrics of the subway, which for the first time in its history had to suspend service overnight. Learning that it is actually easier to operate twenty-four hours a day than to close for several hours each night is jarring, and that first-ever pivot pales in comparison to the tragedy of the estimated 131 MTA employees who died during the first six months of the pandemic, to whose memory the film is dedicated.
End of the Line runs just 65 minutes, which, while short, still manages to execute a resonant investigation of some of the most glaring challenges facing the MTA and the dismal prospects for their resolution given the lack of proper leadership and accountability. Its focus on a key period of time and unforeseen events that changed the trajectory of what could have been a decent plan is both informative and compelling, and while it’s unlikely that anyone with the power to effect actual productivity will bother to see this film, regular riders of the subway and casual visitors to New York City will surely appreciate the experience.
End of the Line premieres on all major VOD digital and Cable platforms in the US on Friday, June 14th.