There’s a striking irony to the fact that City Hall is nonagenarian documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s 45th feature. It was shot amid the Trump presidency in 2018 and 2019 and is being released in the days leading up to and after an election that will hopefully result in the infantile authoritarian’s ousting. But Wiseman, who made his first documentary, Titicut Follies, in 1967, never makes films in response to the current political climate—at least, not explicitly. Rather, they’re miniature panoramas that, often by circumstance, reflect the political eras in which they were made.
Along these lines, the three films that Wiseman has released since the 45th president took office (Ex Libris: The New York Public Library; Monrovia, Indiana; and City Hall) advance a worldview that runs alternate to Trump’s, issuing a series of perspectives that are, contrary to those of our president, ultimately hopeful. Ex Libris, about the New York Public Library, was shot before the 2016 election but was released in 2017; it revels in the pursuit and circulation of knowledge, concepts that have routinely been challenged over these past four years. Monrovia, Indiana (2018), about a farming town with a population of just over a thousand residents, presented a nuanced perspective on middle America after it had been trotted out as a talking point on both sides of the aisle.
Finally comes City Hall, Wiseman’s latest in an extraordinary succession of documentaries about institutions, which have explored most every crevice of American society, as well as select subjects abroad. One of his longest at four-and-a-half hours—each minute crucial—the film probes facets of local government as they pertain to those hallowed halls. At a time when the federal government and its multitude of actors have become more and more capricious, Wiseman provides an example of municipal government where those working within it seem genuinely interested in serving the public.
Born in Boston, Wiseman’s decision to again film there (Titicut Follies takes place at a hospital for the criminally insane outside the city, and his approximately six-hour masterpiece, Near Death, was shot at the city’s Beth Israel Hospital) had nothing to do with it being his birthplace. He wanted to make a film about a city hall and, after reaching out to several mayors across the country, landed on Beantown after Democratic Mayor Martin J. Walsh was the only one to accept (in part because he’d seen some of Wiseman’s films). This adds another layer to the film’s characterization of Walsh, who, for perhaps the first time in Wiseman’s nonfiction career, could be deemed the protagonist, a figure around which all else revolves. Those who have seen any of Wiseman’s other documentaries know that this is uncommon, as he typically eschews such narrative conventions.
Similarly, the film’s optimistic tone—which marks the culmination of an attitude he’s been inclined toward in his last several features—is also distinctive within Wiseman’s oeuvre. Consider such films as High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Welfare (1975), Aspen (1991), and even City Hall’s most analogous predecessor, State Legislature (2007). At times these films feel derisive toward the institutions they document, in large part because of how they’re being portrayed. Wiseman undoubtedly believes in the power of institutions, but whether that power is being wielded for the benefit or the detriment of society is up for debate. Here Wiseman presents both the good and the bad, albeit sparingly, as a means of emulating the intricacies of municipal government and the ways it impacts peoples’ lives.
Like many of Wiseman’s films, City Hall contains numerous scenes that take place in meetings, these gatherings that determine the political minutiae of everyday society. We see Walsh and his colleagues in their element, discussing such topics as policing, public housing, and school enrollment. We also see the more routine activities that take place at city hall, from marriages (a touching scene early on helps set the tone for the rest of the film and shows how city government can evolve to meet everyone’s needs) to people settling parking tickets. We’re privy to two examples of the latter; during both, government employees waive the fees. The film’s most affecting passages, however, take place outside these walls, showing the resonances of what happens within them. One depicts a visit from pest control to an elderly veteran’s apartment, which is infested with rats. The city worker and the complainant adopt a genial rapport; the latter speaks about his struggles, while the former addresses his infestation without judgment. Someone needs help, and the government has sent someone to provide it.
Naturally, friction occurs. At a forum where members of local government and community members discuss racial bias in the allocation of contracts among Boston businesses, one minority business owner scoffs at the notion that a study was needed to confirm this. At another meeting, representatives of a business that’s been granted a government contract boast about what they’ve done for the community; this leads a member of said community to point out that residents should be directing those efforts. In a much-lauded scene toward the end, an assembly of potential marijuana dispensary owners and members from the community where they’re trying to open a new storefront hold a conversation about the implications of this development. Many express doubts that their concerns will be heard or that their voices will make an impact, but one comes away cautiously optimistic that a genuine exchange has taken place.
City Hall displays much of Wiseman’s sardonic humor, albeit without its occasional causticness. In a scene at the Greater Boston Food Bank, Walsh gives an impassioned speech about food insecurity in the city. Behind him, among a throng of officials who mirror Walsh’s professionalism, is Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster. Whoever’s in costume frequently shifts, as if attempting to affirm via gesture what Walsh is saying. The result is a jocose reminder that local governments often go to absurd lengths to connect with their people. One need only think about, for better or worse, the Census Cowboy or Chicago mayor Lori Lightfooot’s recent donning of a superhero costume to advise on COVID.
Much has been written about Wiseman’s filmmaking techniques, which haven’t changed much over the decades. Still, I marveled at how this new work is, like all the others, a feat of editing. There are no accidents, happy or otherwise, in Wiseman’s world; he shoots for months and compiles hundreds of hours of footage, which he then edits into the final film. In addition to producing and often doing the sound for his films, he’s edited every single one of them himself. He’s not only one of our country’s greatest living filmmakers, but also perhaps one of the greatest editors to ever sit at the bench. As both a director and editor, his is a singular authorial voice that cedes recognition to that being featured within. The decision of what to include is a personal one, but these films aren’t about Wiseman. Ultimately (and even when they’re about institutions) they’re about people. The sometimes profound cynicism of some of Wiseman’s earlier films is replaced here by the even more profound conviction that people are at the heart of government and that many of those people just want to help.
A Wiseman film isn’t a Wiseman film unless there’s a cut to some sort of custodial worker; interstices throughout his films largely concentrate on building exteriors and so-called throwaway shots of people in daily life, usually at work. One sequence in City Hall, among a series of seemingly inconsequential chasms that break up all the official affairs, follows an industrial trash compactor as it crushes large items, from a mattress and box-spring set to a gas-powered barbecue. In my head I can’t help but envision Wiseman directing that shot, marveling like a child at the machine’s power. And just as Wiseman might gape at the ability of this apparatus to break down such heavy objects, so, too, does he stand in awe, in a time when they’re most sorely needed, at the ability of institutions—and, more importantly, the people within them, and the people whom they serve—to build us up. v