Ragtime ★★★½

Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, Milos Forman's film is a fascinating panorama of early twentieth century New York.

Two threads compete for attention. The first is based on the real life trial of Harry Kendall Thaw who murdered famed architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) after White created a nude statue modeled on Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern).

The second introduces us to African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) whose pregnant, unmarried girlfriend, Sarah winds up at the home of an unnamed, white family living a comfortable suburbian life. The matriarch of the family (Mary Steenburgen) takes pity on Sarah and invites them into her home.

Unfairly victimized by local, racist firemen, Coalhouse tries to use the system to get justice, but he's thwarted at every turn. As his anger builds, he stages a series of violent attacks and takes over the Pierpoint Morgan Library.

After a tense standoff, Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (James Cagney) diffuses the situation, but when Coalhouse emerges from the siege, he's killed by a sniper.

Cagney's last role is as vibrant as ever. Mandy Patinkin is wonderful as a Jewish inventor turned film director. The film is populated by colorful historical characters like Waldo, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington. It features a young Samuel L. Jackson, the great Richard Griffiths, and Jeff Daniels in supporting roles. McGovern's sexy turn reminds me of Barbra Streisand in What's Up Doc?. Rollins effectively channels unbridled rage and frustration. Steenburgen provides her trademark combination of earnestness and blissful ignorance.

Despite all of this, the finished product is a overbearing and too long. It should have been two movies instead of one. The Nesbit story tended towards comedy, while the Coalhouse story was about righteous indignation. Switching between the two kept the film from finding a rhythm or a consistent tone.