“I don’t think they believed they could get out alive.”
There’s always been something about New York in the 1970s that I’ve been drawn to. I’m not sure if it’s the seedy decadence or the wild west type of lawlessness, but this decade came to define the city in ways that saw its people at their most fascinatingly primal and barbaric. It was an era where the chaos of urban life and the excitement of the big city could be felt by everyone who existed there, producing a million stories in the process. Now, the new documentary, Hold Your Fire, looks back at one of those stories, examining one of the most explosive pockets of the city’s rocky history.
In January 1973, four young men went into a Brooklyn sporting goods store with the intention of holding it up in an attempt to steal some firearms. What was supposed to be a simple robbery ended up being a 36-hour standoff between the men and the police that brought to light multiple tensions and fractures within the city.
With a subject matter as tense and timely as this one, Hold Your Fire should feel more gripping than it does initially. Documentary filmmaker Stefan Forbes uses the wealth of vintage footage as best he can, but his retelling of the story is handled in a somewhat rocky fashion from the start. The film plunges us right into the holdup and standoff without really letting us get to know much about the culprits, their motives, or the series of events that led them to commit this crime. Plenty of the people involved in the event, from police officers, to hostages, to even two of the robbers themselves are interviewed and give the kind of detailed accounts that are better than any piece of vintage footage or recreation. Everyone’s recollections are sobering, powerful and go a long way in helping to steer the film’s narrative in the right direction.
What Forbes’s film does manage to bring to the surface are the extreme feelings of fear and hostility that existed between the NYPD and citizens of color within communities such as Brooklyn. Listening to both the holdup men and the retired cops describe that period of time, it’s clear that the fear was real and that the levels of animosity may never have been truly extinguished. Hold Your Fire doesn’t let anyone off the hook, no matter who they are or what their role in the events were, but it does attempt to go into the minds of everyone involved. We see the desperation that inspired the crime in the first place as well as the undiagnosed PTSD that most of the responding officers were suffering from. Most importantly, we meet the film’s most prolific figure, police psychologist, Harvey Schlossberg, who fought to introduce the practice of hostage negotiation into the standoff, despite mountainous resistance and skepticism.
As I mentioned earlier, Hold Your Fire is a deeply important story that still resonates today. There’s a sense throughout the film that this event deserves more than the treatment it was given, especially since Forbes eventually just relies on talking heads to take us through to the end. Despite this, the documentary ultimately works because of the investment of everyone within it displays. While the cops, hostages, and robbers all tried to put their lives back together following what happened (with some being more successful than others), Hold Your Fire does succeed in showing how an oft-forgotten event had the most profound effects on every individual it touched.