Every Little Step
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Frederick Wiseman, U.S., Zipporah Films
Frederick Wiseman’s State Legislature, which followed a single 12-week deliberative session of Idaho’s House of Representatives, arrived in 2007, at the tail end of the dreary, deadening Bush presidency. After seven years of watching our national polity fracture and splinter, spending a few hours with this group—largely conservative, incredibly white and male—as they seriously and collegially knuckled into the business of governing, debating the issues before them, opened space for optimism. Perhaps our form of representative government can actually function, on some level. In Jackson Heights, 2015’s paean to diverse communities, opened just as the festering rot that coalesced into Trumpism was bubbling up to America’s surface. Though white supremacy would soon ascend into the White House, here was actual America, as it is being lived. Post-election, 2017’s Ex Libris suggested pathways for fighting the revanchist tide by embracing classic liberal ideals: community, literacy, study, reflection. And 2019’s gracious Monrovia, Indiana returned embittered viewers to the much mythologized American heartland to see what actually was happening out there, perhaps as a first step in charting paths to reconnect at a future, less tendentious moment.
Unlike the films mentioned above, which seemed to arrive with a strange prescience (just how did Wiseman know to be filming each of those subjects and finish those films just when they were most needed?), City Hall, a typically mammoth, kaleidoscopic examination of Boston’s municipal administration, feels, at times, out of step. What can focusing on the activities of a single mayor of a medium-sized northeastern city and the bureaucracy he leads tell us in this moment, in which tsunamis of ignorance and actual disease are sweeping the nation? Of course, City Hall was recorded in a simpler world, so long ago, over a few months in 2018—the Red Sox had just won the World Series, the Democrats had taken control of the House of Representatives, and life on Earth seemed somewhat less on the brink. But this four-and-a-half hour film is here now, and there's something almost hopelessly quaint about watching public servants with decent intentions attempt to better the lives of their constituents through policy.
City Hall openly asks us to consider the relationship between the events we see onscreen and those happening outside the city. The film mostly consists of meetings, presentations, and dialogues interspersed with pillow shots of Boston’s notably heinous skyline; mammoth, imposing municipal buildings (blocky City Hall itself, and its widely derided, uninviting nearby plaza, almost seem hell-bent on keeping the citizenry as far away as possible); and quiet, tree-lined historic neighborhoods. Topics under discussion include housing policy, the opioid crisis, climate resilience, food insecurity, racial equity, and elder care. PowerPoint slides have rarely been filmed as longingly and lovingly in cinema. Central to many of Wiseman’s scenes is popular Boston mayor Marty Walsh. Trump himself is not often mentioned by name, but Mayor Marty makes reference to how “the current administration” has made certain preferred policies difficult to enforce; a young staffer explains how a proposed new HUD rule that will affect their constituents represents, in effect, a backdoor erosion of Civil Rights nationwide. Marty himself says that his team and town “can’t solve the problems of the United States of America.” Yet this Mayor’s still sounding a hopeful note: Boston can’t solve them entirely, but it could help.
In the mainstream cinematic imagination, Boston is an unending procession of meaty Irish boys straight from “Southie” who sport Pats gear and have a problem sounding their “r”s. City Hall reminds viewers that not only is Boston currently a majority-minority city, but it is now, and has always been, a metropolis built around large, evolving immigrant populations. We don’t see Mayor Walsh’s January 25, 2017 speech in which he, in defiance of Trump’s executive orders, declared Boston a sanctuary city, but he does refer to this signature moment in a meeting Wiseman captures. Walsh is making an important connection with communities of color: his stock—white, Irish—were once treated and discussed the way the intolerant discuss today’s immigrant populations. Throughout City Hall, the mayor, a doughy, lifelong Bostonian, a basset hound in a suit, seems to be everywhere, and ready to unload from a deep well of empathy. Wiseman’s figuration of Walsh as an ideal public servant skirts hagiography, yet outside the bounds of this film, the city itself seems to deeply adore him. It’s easy to be skeptical of any politician in this moment, but trust in Wiseman not to put his thumb on the scale, even if his film may still have benefited from a handful fewer scenes in which Walsh emerges from nowhere to punctuate a lenthy dialogue.
There is much fetishization of “access” in how nonfiction filmmaking is made and discussed—that if the camera isn’t hugging a subject’s face from inches away while they arrive at the most painful realization/moment/event of their lives then the filmmaker just hasn’t gotten the goods. The material of many of Wiseman’s films acts as a kind of rejoinder. Save for a few inner circle meetings headed by Walsh, there’s little in City Hall that feels truly private, and which likely couldn’t have been filmed by an enterprising local journalist on assignment. But, as ever, it is in the selection, accrual, and arrangement of his footage (i.e. editing) that Wiseman most excels, building an exhaustive (and, yes, in this film’s case, somewhat exhausting) collection of moments that reverberate off of each other as the film’s runtime expands. Property is perhaps the most important theme recurring throughout City Hall—what it’s used for, who has it, who is likely to own it in the future. A budgeting meeting early in the film establishes the centrality of this question to the city’s lifeblood as the vast majority of the funds used to pay for government services are derived from property taxes. Wiseman shows how so many disparate issues—race, climate, schooling—ultimately revert back to this simple question.
It might be churlish to label the film as literally functional. There’s nothing in City Hall that approaches the tense friction of National Gallery’s budget meetings or the plain grace of Monrovia, Indiana’s concluding funeral sequence. There’s still poetry here: it is worth noting a deft early-film transition from outdoor shopping center Faneuil Hall that continues a busker’s drumming underneath historical paintings detailing the formation of the U.S. in a nearby museum; it forms an overture to a lengthy series of testimonials from veterans, one of the longest sequences in the film. Throughout, there is a lot of speaking, and, thankfully, plenty of listening. There’s soon-to-be U.S. Senator Ed Markey cutting a rug with neurodivergent youth at a Goodwill event. And, in between the cascade of public-facing community gatherings, parking tickets are distributed, roads are repaved, rescue shelters handle adoptions. New houses are inspected. The trash is picked up. “Politics” may assault our psyches on a daily basis, but the government just keeps rolling on.
There’s a late film suite that expresses better than all of the Mayor’s hopeful rhetoric that bureaucratic institutions, by dint of their atomization, might yet save us all. In this brief section, just two scenes in length, a pair of parking tickets are forgiven: the first violator is a young man who, on the verge of becoming a father, was too stressed to park his car away from a hydrant; the second, an older gentleman, didn’t notice new restrictions in a vastly changed, formerly empty Boston neighborhood he hadn’t visited in some time. Both plead their cases with humor and humility, and their adjudicators listen and act with appropriate empathy. Perhaps in the actions of the thousands of civil servants who work every day for the public we can locate a bulwark, a silent fire-stop against Trumpism.
At the conclusion of City Hall, a black female and white male police officer perform a duet of the National Anthem before an approving crowd at Boston Symphony Hall. This climax arrives not long after an extended community meeting regarding the potential pitfalls of opening a medical marijuana shop in a depressed city neighborhood. There are few “issues of the day” that are not touched upon in City Hall in some fashion. But there’s something Mayor Marty says to a group of his young Latinx staffers that has stuck with me: “You don’t settle at politics.” There’s more work of government to be done, so much work, and City Hall seems to want to make room for nearly all of it so as to remind viewers just how crucial it is for a collection of people to have a government at all. Is this notion quaint? In late 2020, it might seem so, but remember: we are still living in Fred Wiseman’s America. And he has been looking and listening and assembling its story for far longer than most of us. Perhaps we’ll look back on City Hall years from now and find that the consummate American chronicler once again delivered us the film we needed, when we needed it.