Tag Archives: City Hall

Frederick Wiseman’s CITY HALL

At a time when a lot of Americans have lost faith in national politics, Frederick Wiseman’s epic CITY HALL arrives right on time to perform the crucial 2020 task of restoring viewers’ faith in local politics. Shot in the pre-COVID era of 2018 and 2019, Wiseman’s film follows the daily goings-on at Boston’s City Hall – from city council meetings and town halls to a same-sex wedding, a Chinese New Year celebration and many speeches given by Mayor Marty Walsh, a down-to-earth guy who receives an unusual amount of screen time and emerges as the unlikely “star” of the movie. The last time that could be said about an individual in a Wiseman film was in 2013’s AT BERKELEY, which, at the expense of spending more time with teachers and students, almost perversely focused on UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, an unlikable bureaucrat (long since fired) with a creepy grin permanently pasted onto his face; the result was one of the director’s worst films. CITY HALL is far more successful in large part because Walsh is a much more interesting and sympathetic character. Wiseman shows him in a variety of different contexts (addressing a veterans’ group, speaking to a nurses’ union, celebrating the Red Sox’s World Series victory outside of Fenway Park, etc.). It’s remarkable how much one ends up learning about Walsh as a person through these scenes – from his Irish heritage to his struggles with alcoholism – and his compassionate nature ends up setting the tone for Wiseman’s entire documentary. Walsh seems to genuinely care about Boston’s residents and his role as their civil servant and it’s difficult to see the movie and not conclude that Beantown is a “city that works.” Of course, Wiseman, known for his even-handedness, also doesn’t shy away from being critical of Boston either – a late scene depicting a town hall devoted to entrepreneurs who want to open cannabis dispensaries allows the residents of a low-income neighborhood to address racial and economic inequalities at length. From the standpoint of cinematography and editing, CITY HALL also emerges as one of Wiseman’s most dynamic works: The film features a kind of symphonic structure in which lengthy meeting scenes are punctuated by elegant montages of static shots of Boston at large. This structure conveys the idea that Boston’s City Hall is a place where laws are made and that the surrounding environs are the human spaces in which these laws are enacted. It also discreetly “chapterizes” the movie, making its four-and-a-half hour run time ideal to watch in multiple installments.  

CITY HALL opens for a virtual run at the Gene Siskel Film Center Friday, November 6. Pre-sale tickets are available on the Siskel’s website.


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