City Hall – Movie Review

Director Frederick Wiseman, who’s now in his nineties, has undeniably influenced whole generations of nonfiction filmmakers; his fly-on-the-wall shooting style and signature eschewal of talking-head interviews continues to pop up in countless other peoples’ works. But, even with his age, that doesn’t mean that he himself isn’t still delivering notable works. His new film, City Hall, is the latest installment in Wiseman’s career-long study of places, vocations, and institutions. Even more so than the average project from this living-legend, Wiseman’s portrait of his hometown of Boston — and the machinations of the government that runs it — pretty much demands your undivided attention. Which, of course, poses a challenge to some of the contemporary moviegoers (especially ones watching from home), who might find their eyes and thoughts wandering or their fingers restlessly scrolling during the seventh or eighth extended policy discussion captured in its near-entirety.

Arriving at four-and-a-half hours, City Hall is Wiseman’s second longest film, yet it arguably stills bits off a little more than it can chew. Long passages take place within drab offices and administrative chambers. But just as his last (great) film, Ex Libris, strayed from the main branch of the New York Public Library to chart the full cultural reach of that institution, City Hall looks beyond the walls of its titular setting — to drop by Red Sox games and fundraisers, peeping in on school board meetings and press conferences, crashing sanitation routes and animal-control calls. Given the vast sprawl of his interests, Wiseman might as well have chopped off the second word of the title.

So while City Hall may lack any clear narrative progression, the film still provides something that might qualify as a first, as Wiseman locates a protagonist of sorts: Mayor Marty Walsh, whose multiple appearances throughout the movie might have something to do with the demands of the job. Almost everywhere the camera goes, from a veterans’ hall to a food bank to a senior center, Walsh turns up, speaking to his constituents and ensuring them that he’s mindful of their needs. As the film provides a sense of just how much time the mayor of a major city spends addressing public functions, Wiseman is still someone who’s been studying the inner workings of American civics for too long to buy wholesale into any savior narratives. The structure of the film subtly underscores a disconnect between the rhetoric of change and the reality of how long it can take: While Walsh’s staff calmly, dryly debates how to address Boston’s high eviction rate, we meet a desperate man for whom the issue is far from theoretical.

And there’s a lot of that in City Hall. Wiseman here continues his fascination with meetings and speeches; there’s roughly three hours here of people either talking into a microphone or sitting around a conference table. Some of these meetings, honestly, seem like the kind that the people who are actually attending them clearly wish that they could have skipped. In the opening ten minutes, Wiseman serves up a city budget seminar, complete with pie charts from a projector and a presenter who comes across like the dullest of teacher assistants, as if daring some viewers to flee from the get-go.

Yet, as City Hall may start to feel like C-SPAN, Wiseman’s approach guarantees memorable encounters. There is, for example, a contentious community meeting about the arrival of a new cannabis dispensary — a sequence that functions like a microcosm for the whole complicated business of running a city and trying to meet everyone’s conflicting needs. But then there’s also the pleasures of watching how Boston’s traffic engineers monitor possible jams on a huge bank of closed-circuit monitors or the goofy spectacle of a garbage truck devouring discarded mattresses, bed frames, and (somehow) an entire metal barbecue grill. Yet the subject matter this time also results in both a smaller fraction of oddball personalities and a larger volume of scenes devoted to bureaucratic discussion. Is there such a thing as too much curiosity in a nonfiction filmmaker? Wiseman’s refusal to simplify — his allergy to easy conclusions — sometimes manifests itself as a reluctance to separate the conversational yolk from the eggshell, or to cut away from anything. City Hall, in other words, may sometimes try the patience of even a big Wiseman fan. Yet still, there’s a method to his occasional tedium, too: While Walsh makes his inspirational remarks, the real work of political progress, especially on the local level, is slower and much less glamorous; it happens around the table, not at the podium. City Hall, with its patient, observant senses, delivers on an experiential look as it finds humanity alongside the bureaucracy; delving in the details of the role government and community share.

Grade: B

City Hall is available in Virtual Cinemas

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