Those of us living in the opening decades of the 21st century should watch our step: Writers and artists will be waiting at the other end, trying to make sense of the entire age from the way we lived. Just as James Cameron attempted to squeeze a hundred years of American class conflict and teen rebellion into Titanic, E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime looked back at a turn-of-the-century American culture of new possibilities and new traps. New media began to create a popular culture that flickered in movie houses and moved to the beat of music created by people who were only a generation or so removed from slavery. Celebrities were destroyed as easily as they were created, and Harry Houdini jostled for newspaper space against Teddy Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, public murders, and the sex scandal of the week.
For years, the novel's kaleidoscopic sprawl resisted attempts to adapt it, including an earnest try from Robert Altman. With his command of expansive casts and historic themes, Altman might have been able to make a masterpiece of it, but his Ragtime belongs beside Richard Linklater's Friday Night Lights in a file for missed opportunities that eventually yielded interesting results anyway. Scaling back Doctorow's ambition from the ludicrous to the merely daunting, Milos Forman (coming off the success of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and the failure of Hair), puts the focus on the novel's central story of an upwardly mobile middle-class family (headed by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen) who take in an unwed black mother (Debbie Allen) and her newborn child. Flush with new success as a pianist, Allen is swiftly courted by the child's father (Howard E. Rollins) and just as swiftly killed when she attempts to aid his quest to find justice for the racially motivated vandalizing of his new Model T. Driven mad by his loss—or is that just righteous fury?—Rollins begins a campaign of terror that eventually stretches to the highest reaches of New York society.
Opting for handsome straightforwardness, Forman loses much of the novel's flavor, but the film still has much to recommend it, especially an immersive period production design and a top-form cast. Lured out of decades of retirement, James Cagney has a memorable turn as a wily police commissioner, but the younger performers—particularly Rollins, Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, and Mandy Patinkin—are the ones who tap into the spirit of the piece. With assembly-line efficiency, the new era reveals its ability to convert their idealism into cynicism whether they find success or tragedy. It's a hard lesson, but one worth remembering at the top or tail end of any American century.