Film Review: Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall” — A Kinder, Gentler Government?
By David D’Arcy
City Hall is a quiet, unsentimental celebration of civility in its many forms.
If you believe, as Tip O’Neill said, that all politics is local, then City Hall could be reassuring.
Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary (his 46th), which played at the Toronto International Film Festival, takes us to the Boston building as well as into a network of programs mandated to reach beyond the walls of City Hall.
That’s a lot. Can Wiseman, now 90, give us all of this in four and a half hours?
More or less, mostly less. Wiseman’s study is a gentle sampling of people and programs that mean well. Imagine a city whose legendary sarcasm has been replaced by a well-intentioned sincerity. This vision puts the film at odds with much of Boston’s mythology as well as with the endless canards against the oppressive bureaucracy of “big government” that are part of the current political noise. City Hall shows you the mechanics of government from the ground up, minus much of the noise.
Talk may still be its lifeblood. With the loquacious Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and a procession of citizens and public servants, the talk in this doc is infinite, or at least it feels that way. It’s textbook Wiseman. No conversation seems sacrificed or — God forbid — shortened to satisfy anyone’s short attention span.
We’re given brief glimpses of the 1968 building itself, only to remind us why we see so little of it. The Brutalist concrete structure, product of a ’60s academic vogue in architecture, seems designed to be impregnable — more managerial than monumental. The sterile plaza that the building faces has been deliberately left empty. The result is one of the starkest public spaces in a major American city.
The building was the backdrop for a notorious photograph. In 1976, a Boston Herald photographer captured a profoundly symbolic moment, when an enraged teenager protesting court-ordered busing to integrate Boston’s public schools took the pole of an American flag and attacked a Black lawyer on his way to a meeting in City Hall. Anti-busing protesters kicked and beat the lawyer, breaking his nose.
Wiseman doesn’t ignore racial tensions in City Hall, but he’s turned the page on that era’s violence and — by omission — on the Brahmins, the Kennedys, and the Bulgers, on the boondoggle public works megaprojects, on the priest abuse scandals that drove out a Cardinal and impoverished an archdiocese, even on Cheers kitsch.
Instead, we get City Hall through the eyes of a citizen who might walk into a meeting or try to pay (or not pay) a ticket. Of course, Wiseman is no ordinary citizen, and that helped him get his camera so close to Mayor Walsh. (Let’s stress that the affable, obliging Walsh seen here is not allergic to cameras.) The result is a paradox, an inside experience of the most unwelcoming-looking building that now welcomes so many citizens.
Those citizens — all but Walsh and top officials — are people we’ve never seen before and won’t see again. That’s the point, as Wiseman watches how government works for the folks who wait in line. These are the same people who rely on the mail to get checks or prescription drugs. These are the two women getting married by a judge. These are people who need their garbage collected, as we see in a truck’s deafening crushing of a discarded outdoor grill.
If Wiseman can find warmth in this process, some of the credit has to go to Walsh, who looks (through Wiseman’s lens) as if he runs city government as a benevolent high school principal might.
Walsh makes sure that his constituents know that he’s been through childhood cancer and that he’s in recovery from booze. Yet he also encourages them to talk about themselves. And it’s in these moments that City Hall comes alive.
In a gathering of veterans that Walsh attends, warriors of all ages and all wars since World War II (of all races) get up to speak. A young, paunchy Iraq vet tells of coming under fire as friends die and he himself bleeds out fast. The soldier, a volunteer like the rest of them, recalls being ready to die as he’s carried away against his will.
This testimony is as powerful as oratory gets in an unscripted film. Wiseman, a poet of the ordinary, knows transcendence when he sees it and when his camera captures it. No one who hears the vet’s testimony about facing eternity will see this young man as a “sucker” or a “loser.”
The room is quiet. True to Boston lore, a silent room is a politician’s worst enemy.
Moments after we relive a bloody clash in Iraq with the man who barely survived it, Marty Walsh rises to note that, while he did not serve in the military, he survived his own ordeal, with alcohol.
Recovery is a long tough battle, to be sure, but most of the vets in that room in Boston may have thought that Fallujah was apocalyptic.
It’s an odd emotional fit – the horror of close combat in a desert war halfway around the world and a politician’s heartfelt testimony about his own struggles with the bottle. But, like so much in City Hall, it’s all in a public forum, where people or things that don’t fit together still come together.
If Walsh’s intervention warrants a smile, the film’s scenes with a clerk who handles parking tickets had me laughing out loud, as similar scenes did in Welfare (1975), Wiseman’s marathon observation of a much-maligned government agency in Manhattan and its much-maligned clients.
A young man with a tender grin tells the clerk that he is a new father, a status which necessitated parking illegally. His ticket is dismissed.
Next, a man who admitted that he parked in violation of a clearly written sign said he did so because he couldn’t believe anyone else would want those spaces. “I had no idea that people actually lived there,” he told the clerk. It worked. By that example, you might think that Boston was more lenient than telegenic Judge Frank Caprio’s court in the reality series Caught in Providence. In City Hall, clemency is given to characters that Mark Twain would have liked. Knowing Boston drivers, I hope that clerks who process moving violations are less forgiving.
In another local glimpse of Americana, a 70ish man who seems to be living on property owned by his siblings complains about rats in his kitchen to a visiting inspector. The man is white, the inspector is a young African American. There is ample evidence that rats have been there, drawn to food that the man left around. The dutiful inspector repeats several times that the rats should not have a food source, which is just what the man has provided.
Once again, Wiseman observes that government can respond to problems, and fix them, especially if citizens meet it halfway. And, once again, Wiseman is quoting himself. The shadowy interiors where the rats forage for food could have come from Belfast, Maine (1999), his four-hour look at the aging population of a crumbling town that’s struggling to turn its fortunes around. The comparison doesn’t flatter Boston.
What does flatter the city is a public meeting in rough but gentrifying Dorchester that has the palette of Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Four Freedoms” magazine cover. The visual comparison is a stretch, but the spirit isn’t.
A group of Asian American investors plans to open a medical marijuana dispensary, and people from the neighborhood are airing their views at a city-sponsored public meeting. Almost everyone there is a minority, from Vietnamese to Haitian to Cape Verdean, a sign that antipathies (and affinities) in Boston today are more splintered than Black vs. white; in reality, they never were just that.
It’s complicated, as Wiseman shows every group encounter in City Hall to be. The businessmen promise an enterprise in a city where medicine is a major industry. The crowd distrusts them. Citizens fear traffic from pot-buyers will block access to existing businesses.
Then we learn that the pot emporium could encroach on a Walgreen’s, an informal meeting place in the community with a thriving open-air drug market in a nearby alley that’s no secret.
The questions are practical. If the new cannabis store opens, possibly displacing business from the illegal trade (or public amenity) a block away, “will the people selling it look like me?,” a local woman asks. The investors, eager to built up credibility, admit that they don’t know yet. Forget the smell of pot. What this low-income crowd smells is gentrification, a pathology that some fear more than drugs, luring people with money into a store run by people from outside the neighborhood. It’s fractious, but no one is yelling or hitting each other. Not yet.
Unsentimental, City Hall is a quiet celebration of that civility in its many forms. It arrives at an odd time – after the outbreak of a pandemic that’s fractured daily life and threatens to shock the economy with more changes. And it comes after the November election, unless you’re lucky enough to see it at a film festival.
The film’s small dramas are magnified in contrast with COVID-era horrors. Citizens are welcomed at City Hall. Eloquent veterans are not “suckers” and “losers.” People of all races rely on mail delivery and police protection. Officials are not expected to lie to the public. A mayor, when a citizen asks about a serious problem, does not smirk, “It’ll go away.”
Has Wiseman at 90 drunk the Kool-Aid? Is he excluding Boston’s big moneyed players and the obvious scandals from his mosaic of government so we will marvel at the gentler side of politics? Or is City Hall an alternative to the roaring red-hat populism that fills arenas in so many other cities? City Hall Plaza saw the worst of that in 1976. In four and a half hours, this documentary shows us how something better might work.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.