‘City Hall’ Film Review: Frederick Wiseman Celebrates the Power of Civic Engagement

Boston mayor Marty Walsh becomes a constant figure in this examination of the good that government can potentially do with community involvement

Last Updated: October 28, 2020 @ 12:13 PM

Nobody makes documentaries quite like Frederick Wiseman. He doesn’t interview his subjects; he doesn’t provide on-screen identification for who’s talking; he doesn’t use any non-diegetic music. What he does do is plant the viewer firmly inside what “Hamilton” calls “the room where it happens,” taking us deep inside the heart of the hospitals, the department stores, the city governments, the public libraries, the boxing gyms, the art museums, the burlesque houses, the hospice facilities, and all the other institutions he has examined over the course of a storied career.

His 45th feature film “City Hall” — premiering at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals prior to a release later this year — goes deep into the workings of the city of Boston, a much larger and more populated location than the subjects of earlier Wiseman works like “Belfast, Maine” or “Monrovia, Indiana.” It’s clear that even this new film’s four-and-a-half running time can only scratch the surface of such a multi-faceted subject, but Wiseman’s camera takes in as much of the title entity as possible, in terms of both the literal building and its figurative outreach.

The unifying force of the movie, besides geography, is mayor Marty Walsh, whom we encounter in various internal meetings (with police higher-ups, with Latinx city employees) and out and about, whether it’s at a Veteran’s Day event, a Chinese New Year parade, a senior citizens’ luncheon, a rally supporting nurses, or Thanksgiving events promoting food banks and Goodwill. (At a dinner for clients and volunteers of the latter, he makes a speech and then circulates the room pouring gravy for diners.)

While there’s always a sense that Walsh is enough of an innate politician to always be aware of Wiseman’s camera without ever acknowledging it — even in more intimate settings, he always talks like someone making sure he can’t be misquoted — he brings a real personal touch to the job, whether he’s relating to those veterans and their need for counseling and outreach by sharing stories of his own recovery from alcoholism or saluting those nurses by remembering how much he and his family relied on the kindness of the profession when he battled cancer as a child.

There’s plenty going on without Walsh, though; the film begins and ends with more direct liaisons between city government and its constituency — the 311 non-emergency operators. Within the walls of city hall, we get to sit in on planning meetings, see couples get married, observe traffic management via close-circuit cameras, and watch people talk their way out of parking tickets. We also get images that reflect the city’s rich diversity, from skyscrapers to the legendary harbor, from historic houses and buildings (some restored, some not) to sun-beaten nail salons.

And while one of the throughlines of Wiseman’s career has been a fascination with process, he’s less interested in culminations; there are plenty of conclaves here with hard-working city employees seeking to find solutions for Boston’s homeless population, for instance, but “City Hall” never circles back to tell us how successful those solutions were, or even whether they were ever implemented.

That’s not the story that Wiseman wants to tell. He’s more interested in exploring the mechanics of institutions we know well, even ones that will directly impact our day-to-day lives, but he would rather viewers pick up the baton and get involved themselves rather than to sit back and judge or even summarize.

Wiseman’s movies demand that we make our own conclusions, and they also demand that we adjust ourselves to his method of non-fiction storytelling. His rigorous use of stationary camera and long takes (he edits as well as directs) require a different but no less intense level of engagement as a more personal or more pop style of documentary filmmaking. What Wiseman does is different than most contemporary docs, but he does it so well that his films are consistently engrossing and informative. For a time capsule of what people did at their jobs, and what their surroundings looked like while they were doing it, Wiseman’s filmography is one for the ages.

Granted, the most fascinating moment in “City Hall” is also the most confrontational one, as residents of the working-class Dorchester neighborhood attend a town-hall meeting with entrepreneurs who want to open a cannabis dispensary there. Bringing up issues about everything from parking and sidewalks to providing opportunities to minorities in the neighborhood who have served prison time for selling the very same drugs, the residents are informed and impassioned, refusing to accept the slickly-packaged promises and happy-talk from the retailers without some verbal pushback.

And that direct engagement is the point. Just because Wiseman isn’t narrating or making direct statements, it doesn’t mean there’s not a point of view at play here; it’s apparent that the director champions governmental institutions and community involvement in an age where reactionaries are still trying to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub and to make individual citizens feel hopeless and cynical about their elected officials. Much like “Monrovia, Indiana” and “In Jackson Heights,” this is a story of America in the age of Trump; Walsh mentions the president in passing, as the functional opposite of the ways that the mayor and other city employees are trying to be welcoming and inclusive to immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, the poor, the LGBTQ+ community, and other populations at risk of losing advances made over the last 60 years.

One may or may not be able to fight city hall, but “City Hall” argues that it’s incumbent upon all of us to be involved with local politics, which can directly and indirectly shape what’s happening at the state and national level as well. It’s a civics lesson that’s subtly delivered within some thoroughly exciting documentary filmmaking.