Every Frederick Wiseman movie starts like a dare. Though the 90-year-old documentary legend has been chronicling social institutions ever since 1967’s “Titicut Follies,” many of his projects casually drift through three or four hours of dense, layered portraits following the people behind vast organizational forces. Ironically, this has actually made his work even more valuable with time, and “City Hall,” which clocks in at four hours and 32 minutes, is no exception. As attention spans dwindle and the complex mess of American governance grows murkier than ever, Wiseman’s immersive dive into Boston’s city services ignores the pressure to dumb things down and marvels at the complexity of a system designed to make the world run right.
Subtext: Take that, Trump! Just as Wiseman’s 2018 portrait “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library” served as a de facto repudiation of leaders who reject intellectual discernment, “City Hall” assails the corruption of American democracy by hovering within the sophisticated efforts on the other end of the equation. It’s an understatement to say that Wiseman — who edits his own material — doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Exhilarating and exasperating in equal measures, “City Hall” coheres into a rich tapestry of Boston in argument with itself.
Shot between 2018 and 2019, the movie finds Wiseman returning to his home state for the first time since 1989’s “Near Death,” which focused on residents and workers at Beth Israel Hospital. Though the canvas is much wider this time, Wiseman has found a key access point to tie many disparate scenes together. Boston mayor Marty Walsh, who has held office since 2014, crops up throughout “City Hall” as a kind of aspirational voice of the people. In speeches to a diverse range of citizens and meetings with government workers, the verbose Irish-American leader shares his complicated story, wrestles with the city’s failings on a wide range of topics, and pushes for the virtues of fighting for a better way forward.
But Walsh is less centerpiece than symbol in “City Hall,” as Wiseman roams through a range of offices, town halls, and breathless strategy sessions, all in service of a sprawling case for how government works. Open yourself up to the mentally daunting nature of the plunge, and “City Hall” amounts to a vibrant half-day hangout with democracy in action.
The proceedings start to look awfully dry in the opening minutes, when Wiseman allows a Powerpoint on the shortcomings of the city’s $3 billion budget to slowly unfurl, but then the steady rhythms and structure take hold. As usual, Wiseman eschews score in favor of a diegetic approach, but his meticulous edits often amount to an engrossing visual symphony designed to string you along. Wiseman has profound reverence for these institutions, and while he starts with the cold, angular image of city hall itself, a series of well-placed shots and cuts travel across the city as a means of deconstructing the icy exteriors at hand.
Aided by cinematographer John Davey, Wiseman travels to rooms brimming with intellectual debates, bureaucratic red-tape frustrations, and inflamed communal passions. Cerebral moments slide into visceral and poignant exchanges: There are conversations about racial inequality and food shortage, Latinx representation, and gender dynamics, but also a gay wedding, a Thanksgiving event for disabled people, and police officers singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It’s an unpredictable journey, but every choice serves a larger whole, as “City Hall” reveals just how much — as one subject puts it — “the people who work for this city work for you.” And yet, as another employee says at a different point: “We do a particularly bad job of information and explaining.” The movie works overtime and then some to rectify that, introducing us to archivists, pest controllers, and food-kitchen volunteers, making the case that they’re all part of the same vast equation. He also dips into many of its flaws, most notably the extent to which Boston’s increasingly diverse population still seems to struggle with a white supremacy problem.
Wiseman hasn’t picked the most glamorous of subjects (we’re a long way from the cabaret spectacle of 2012’s “Crazy Horse”), but it’s a small wonder when his process takes old. At times he allows footage to unfurl for minutes on end, as his subjects ramble on, only to sneak in a savvy edit or montage that adds new layers to the process at hand.
The best example of this approach comes with an emotional Veterans Day gathering, which almost functions as a movie-within-a-movie — until Wiseman get arounds to the point, cutting from various wartime testimonials to antiquated paintings on the wall that stretch back through national history, from the Boston Tea Party to Washington crossing the Delaware. It’s a remarkable cinematic statement on the militancy at the root of colonial America that continues to impact modern-day society, and the sacrifices involved in keeping it tick.
Roll with the master plan and new layers continue to reveal themselves, though Wiseman’s editing is so intricate it often takes time to see the larger machinery at work. One set of exterior shots travels the city street, passing a parking attendant going about her work; maybe a half-hour later, we sit with a series of people contesting such tickets to mixed results.
When “City Hall” stumbles, it has less to do with daunting length than the occasional didacticism of his subjects. Though Walsh is the first to admit his failings (one monologue about his hard-drinking past hits hard), and his personal story resonates (he survived cancer as a kid), Wiseman is enamored of the guy to the point of hero worship; with no news footage or additional information about Walsh’s record as a public servant, we’re forced to take his self-congratulatory word for it.
Along similar lines, “City Hall” sometimes can’t help but seem like the world’s longest after-school special, with a few too many sincere back-and-forths about civic duty. A lot of these speeches are compelling anyway, though given that quite a year has elapsed since Wiseman wrapped production, “City Hall” does feel a bit dated in terms of the challenges faced by its subjects. Wiseman would work wonders with a camera in the midst of the pandemic, but then again, this nonagenarian talent might be better off avoiding crowds for now.
Walsh may be the hero of “City Hall,” but Wiseman doesn’t sugarcoat the broader subject of Boston’s many struggles. His camera lands on passionate engagement throughout. The best prolonged sequence takes place at a combustible town hall meeting between Asian American entrepreneurs angling to open a cannabis shop in a poor neighborhood, and residents of said neighborhood dubious of that cause. The meeting doesn’t exactly address concerns that they might get squeezed out, but it shows the considerable effort involved in local action; relying on public servants can only do so much.
By the time “City Hall” arrives at its breathtaking final shots, Wiseman has crafted such an advanced case for understanding every aspect of local governance that it leads to the impression that America would be a better place if everyone experienced it. Through its hefty length alone, the movie acknowledges that government services are vast enterprises so hard to conceive that they often turn people off from the outset. Yet such aversion only serves to solidify its point. “City Hall” doesn’t just deserve an audience; it deserves a conversation. Even as Wiseman celebrates the sophistication of American ideals in practice, his movie illustrates just how hard they are to grasp.
“City Hall” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and also screened at TIFF. It next plays at NYFF and opens theatrically in November.