Review by Sean Boelman
Frederick Wiseman is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in the direct cinema style of documentary filmmaking, and even as a nonagenarian, he’s still one of the most interesting voices working today. And while his newest film City Hall may be long, it’s powerful stuff and should be considered essential viewing.
The movie takes a look at the Boston city government, with the city used as a representation of American democracy at large. From City Council meetings that get surprisingly heated to public housing inspectors going on their checks, Wiseman turns his camera on all of it to show how these institutions work on even the most miniscule level.
Those viewers who are less adventurous may find themselves put off by the film’s four-and-a-half hour runtime, and honestly, it’s understandable. Watching government proceedings for nearly five hours probably isn’t anyone’s first choice of entertainment, but Wiseman is such a talented filmmaker that he manages to make it riveting.
The style that defines Wiseman’s movies is one that is as detached and objective as possible. Of course, there is something very clear that Wiseman wants viewers to get out of his film, but this is achieved through editing rather than narration or guided interviews. When done right, it can have very impactful results, and as expected, Wiseman’s movie succeeds.
Admittedly, the outlook the film has on the American government is pretty bleak. There are certainly people who want to do right by their people and their power, but American politics have become such a joke that those people can’t even do their job well. One of the most harrowing scenes in the movie features a public forum that is revealed to be entirely ineffective.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is the de facto hero of the film as he tries to keep the different moving parts in the government aligned and working. But in doing so, Wiseman loses track of the most compelling aspect of this story: the people of Boston, those who are affected most by the shortcomings of this local government.
The movie also encourages the viewer to take a more active role in their government at all levels. Of course, it is important to vote because that is the easiest and most basic thing a person can do to have their voice heard. But Wiseman purports that there are other simple ways to bring about change, and it is important for people to get invested in solutions as much as they are invested in problems.
City Hall is a pretty magnificent documentary, although it is obvious why it isn’t going to be for everyone. Hopefully this will be the film that finally gets Wiseman his long-due attention from the greater public.
City Hall screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.