For more than half a century, filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has been chronicling American institutions, creating meticulously crafted mosaics from a very specific point of entry. A boxing gym, a mental institution, a police department, a farming community; they’ve all had Wiseman’s camera turned on them. And through these seemingly microscopic portraits, what Wiseman creates is nothing less than a vibrant spectrum of the human condition. The kindness and tragedy, the civility and pettiness of real people engaging with their world. It is why he is often referred to as the greatest living documentary filmmaker alive, and at 90 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Following 2018’s Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman’s camera now focuses on Boston’s city hall, often following Mayor Marty Walsh as he conducts his daily business for the people of Beantown. An articulate and compassionate Irish-American politician, Walsh’s platform emphasizes access, opportunities and resources for the citizenry for which he has so much affection. Whether it’s addressing the elderly about phone scams, engaging in pointed boardroom meetings on racial disparity, or going over logistics for the Red Sox World Series victory parade, Walsh acts as a north star of sorts, serving the movie as an anchor – which it definitely needs.
City Hall is sprawling. Fire inspectors issue permits, 311 operators patiently answer a barrage of questions, fiscal budgets are discussed, a college attempts to expand their already full student population, and some businessmen want to open a marijuana dispensary in a poor sector of town, much to the chagrin of the residents. Food banks, animal shelters, waste management, traffic tickets, building access for people with disabilities; Wiseman is there for it all, deftly layering his film with themes of equity and race, and above all, resiliency. Far from being dropped down into the world’s most boring city council meeting, the film is at times breathless, hilarious, and more poignant than anything scripted in the last few years.
City government is the social establishment that personally affects our lives the most, and while the phrase “required viewing” gets thrown around a lot, I cannot think of another film that plainly and comprehensively lays bare the both the complex apparatus at work, and the people dedicated to serving its populace. And if the four-and-a-half hour running time makes you skittish, perhaps remember that time you binged the entire West Wing series in a week.
City Hall is available as a Virtual Cinema release.
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