A city can’t thrive if we’re disconnected from each other,” Boston Mayor Martin Walsh says. Documentarian Frederick Wiseman agrees. City Hall is the 90-year-old filmmaker’s 44th crack at studying how an institution functions. It’s a stunning work of observation, understanding, and compassion. As Wiseman says in the movie’s press notes: “Boston’s city government is the opposite of what Trump stands for.”
The outgoing president is evoked only a couple of times by name, but his shadow hangs over every aspect of City Hall. Trump’s presidency has sown deep-seated distrust in governmental institutions and their efficacy, and many of the board meetings featured in City Hall try to combat those suspicions. Though Wiseman refrains from directly interviewing his subjects or letting them address the camera, every city worker here seems to plead with the audience that they can make your life easier if you just let them have the chance. As Mayor Walsh tells more than one Bostonian: Tell us what you need, use the assistance the city provides. “It’s there for you.”
If Trump is the unseen antagonist of City Hall, then Walsh is the closest thing to a protagonist. At least he’s the most frequent. Walsh is everywhere: Board meetings with the police and with housing projects; meetings with seniors and students; at food bank giveaways and Thanksgiving meals for the homeless. He gives a speech at a veteran’s memorial that touches on his longtime struggle with recovery. If a criticism must be aimed at City Hall, then it’s that Walsh is so present it almost feels like the movie could be a campaign video for a presidential run.
Or maybe Wiseman just likes Walsh—that’s a fair shake; Walsh is pretty likable. Wiseman also really likes watching garbage collectors do their job: One of the most hypnotizing scenes in the documentary involves a trash truck gobbling up everything Bostonians set out on the curb. Then there are the scenes with traffic monitors staring at the massive board of stoplight cameras. Traffic’s moving pretty good, one muses. It’ll back up, the other says drolly, you’ll see.
Length is the hallmark of these moments. City Hall runs 4 hours and 32 minutes, and Wiseman stays with certain scenes and characters longer than you’d expect. And not necessarily because there is a laugh or a moment of revelation he’s waiting for, but because it feels natural. So do the edits. In one scene, two women are married, and a third woman raises an iPhone to take a photo. Wiseman then cuts to a bullpen of news cameras aimed at Walsh, congratulating the Red Sox on another World Series victory.
If aliens ever land on Earth and want to understand America, I think a Wiseman documentary would be a good place to start. Sure, the lack of context and commentary would confuse them, but what better way to understand our series of complex systems—simple in some designs, beautifully layered in others—and the dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions even of people working together for the greater good. Because this works, Wiseman seems to say, is all the proof we need to know that we belong here.
City Hall (2020)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Produced by Karen Konicek, Frederick Wiseman
Zipporah Films, Not rated, Running time 272 minutes, Now playing at CU-Boulder’s International (Virtual) Film Series