Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall

The Daily — Sep 29, 2020
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall (2020)

This year’s election is already well underway. Americans are voting right now, and anyone in need of a reminder that there’s more at stake than the White House might want to clear four and a half hours for Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall. It’s streaming nationwide through tomorrow as part of the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate and will close this year’s GlobeDocs on October 11 before opening in the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s virtual screening room on November 6. “Reading between the lines,” writes Keith Uhlich at Slant, “City Hall is an affirmation of the down-ballot bodies that test-run policies that may eventually be implemented at the highest levels of power. But it’s also healthily skeptical toward these same politicos and their processes.”

Those familiar with any of the nearly fifty features the ninety-year-old documentarian has made since his groundbreaking Titicut Follies in 1967 will know not to expect interviews, talking heads, narration, or explanatory intertitles. Wiseman excels at observation and eavesdropping, and while the building that houses Boston’s municipal government may be the center of gravity in City Hall, Wiseman and his cinematographer John Davey also explore the streets to take measure of the effects of the decisions made there. “Politicians have made careers out of preaching that government is the problem,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR, “and right now it’s easier than ever to succumb to a ‘throw the bums out’ nihilism, but Wiseman wants us to reflect on all the essential roles that public institutions play in our daily lives. It’s the movie’s view that cities have certain responsibilities to their citizens and that this is necessary and noble work, even when it inevitably falls short.”

Wiseman’s films explore the interpersonal dynamics that either foster a community or render it dysfunctional. In City Hall, what Burns calls “the grunt work of good governance” involves a whole lot of meetings. “Whether confronting homelessness or drug addiction,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, ”building inspection or income disparity or the mental health of veterans, accessibility for the disabled or inequities in the allotment of contracts, traffic management or the organization of a victory parade for the Boston Red Sox or (in the movie’s most extended and most stirring sequence) a public debate over the location of a cannabis center, government—which is to say, skilled and caring public officials and professional administrators—confronts problems that it can’t avoid and that only it can solve.”

What sets City Hall apart from Wiseman’s other work is “its character-driven nature, allowing a clear protagonist—a hero, even—to emerge from its many diffuse scenes of everyday life across a broad social and professional spectrum,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is “effectively presented as the anti-Trump: a decent, unassuming man of working-class origin—the son of Irish immigrants—less preoccupied with his political status than the public obligations that come with it.” In the Boston Globe, Ty Burr argues that City Hall “shows how a mayor can serve as a city’s symbolic conscience and embodiment of its ideals. To outsiders, the movie’s Martin J. Walsh may even seem a heroic figure (as opposed to ‘our Mahty’)—a self-effacing and inclusive progressive who can speak to his own struggles and connect them with those of his listeners. The man has the common touch and an ability to make a stem-winder sound like it’s coming from the heart. Which maybe it is.”

But Walsh won’t appeal to everyone, evidently. “Landing in a moment when there is a mass rejection of establishment politics and neoliberal centrism,” writes M. G. Mailloux at In Review Online, “it’s hard to invest in a four-and-a-half-hour film largely built around someone who embodies those very values.” And at the A.V. Club, A. A. Dowd simply wonders if there might be “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 wheat from the chaff, or to cut away from anything. City Hall, in other words, may sometimes try the patience of even a Wiseman devotee.”

But for Jason Bailey at the Playlist, Wiseman once again “exhibits an uncanny ability to make the dullest imaginable events compelling—a power that’s not only remarkable, but inexplicable.” What City Hall “boils down to, in many ways,” he writes, “is a much-needed dose of competency porn—a snapshot of government officials trying their very best to do better, and to be better. And that might be the story he’s really telling: a reminder that government, for all of its speed bumps and snags, can work. It can help. The people running it just have to want it to.”

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