For as long as I’ve been doing this movie review thing (more than 20 years), I’ve been reviewing a new documentary by Frederick Wiseman (National Gallery; Ex Libris: New York Public Library) about once a year. Most of his films are masterful pieces of immersion, usually of a sizable institution that has multiple moving parts—sometimes hundreds. And with no narration, title cards, interviews or archival footage, he simply allows us to watch the processes unfold across a period of usually a few months. His latest masterpiece is City Hall, which moves us through the workings of the city of Boston, led by its progressive and skillful mayor, Martin Walsh, and his seemingly endless numbers of civil servants who keep nearly every aspect of the city moving and functional…mostly.
While the now 90-year-old Wiseman doesn’t limit himself to just the physical Boston City Hall building, the film does seem at its best when we see how much gets accomplished and discussed within its walls. An opening budget meeting gives us a good sense of how the city divides its money and its attention, while private conversations and committee meetings address such topics as racial issues, housing, homelessness, veterans affairs, accessibility for the disabled, education, parks, police action, and elder support, often with Mayor Walsh right there offering up concrete answers or paths to get things answered. At one point, he says to a constituent, quite sincerely, “If you see me walking down the street, grab me and tell me how things are going.”
By the end of City Hall, a few of Wiseman’s secondary themes also begin to surface, many of them surrounding Walsh and his real gift for personalizing every concern the people of his city bring to him. He understands the struggles of immigrants, being the direct descendant of Irish immigrants; he understands the struggles of PTSD-ravaged veterans that lead to needing support-group help and counseling because of his own struggles with alcohol abuse. And as a result of watching him find a way into every issue, the film becomes a heartfelt character study of what earnest and humble leadership should look like.
When the film moves outside of government buildings, it gives us a clearer picture of what services fall under the umbrella of the city, such as sanitation (in a wonderfully hypnotic sequence, we see exactly how a garbage truck compacts both an entire bedroom set—mattresses and all—and a full-size grill); home inspections that involve infestation; parade control (filming seems to have begun right after the Red Sox won the 2018 World Series; police services (we see several roll call updates about crime in the previous few hours); and school board decisions, including significant changes in building capacity and enrollment limits.
The film takes place from October 2018 through the winter of 2019, so we don’t get to see how Walsh (who is still mayor) handled the current pandemic, but I’m guessing that particular drama played out daily on the local news.
Even for subjects that sound bone dry, Wiseman’s skillful editing and deliberate pacing allows the viewer to feel as if they are taking part in the process and not just observing them. There are times when you almost feel compelled to speak your mind about what’s being discussed, and there are always “characters” in Wiseman’s movies whom you wish you could get to know in real life. His films are remarkable, epic creations (usually running 2.5-3 hours; City Hall runs 4.5 hours, so strap in and bring a lunch) that are worth every fully invested moment you’ll spend with them, and City Hall is among his finest work.
The film will screen virtually as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa beginning November 6.
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