1996, R, 112 min. Directed by Harold Becker. Starring Al Pacino, John Cusack, Danny Aiello, Bridget Fonda, David Paymer, Martin Landau.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 16, 1996
Hardly the nail-biting suspense thriller the ad campaign has played it up to be, City Hall is instead a thoughtful meditation on the workings of mayoral politics -- and business as usual -- in the dirty heart of the Big Apple, less of a whodunit than a who knew what, when, and why. Pacino is NYC mayor John Pappas, who, at the height of his re-election campaign, finds his office embroiled in the scandal resulting from the death of a six-year-old African-American boy killed in a shoot-out between an undercover police officer and a Mafia don's punk nephew. As racial tensions flare and an endless storm of finger-pointing threatens to capsize the mayor's position, Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (Cusack) seeks to find out what the slain cop was doing meeting the mobster whose bullet was responsible for the child's death, and why the mobster was out on the street in the first place. Cusack's character is a sort of cross between James Carville and George Stephanopolous, a Louisiana-born-and-bred firebrand with a passionate love for both his boss and the truth. Early in the film, Calhoun's voiceover tells us that Pappas is one of the best mayors the city has ever had, but that remains to be seen; as the film progresses, the scandal slowly works its way closer and closer to his office. Pacino is, as always, riveting. His Pappas is a career politician of Greek descent, genuinely proud of the job he's doing and aware of the responsibilities his office carries. He's a grown-up version of Pacino's character in …And Justice For All and though he's tightly laced into the boss politics of the city, he's also more concerned with “menschkeite” -- a Yiddish phrase meaning the bonds of honor between men -- than he is with protocol. Becker's tight, streamlined direction, along with Nicholas Pileggi's (GoodFellas) excellent script and Cusack's wonderful turn as Calhoun take City Hall far above the standard genre fare. Like real mayoral politics, it's a descent into a snakepit, with no easy answers in sight.