I couldn't be more excited about this film, and couldn't be more grateful to have had the opportunity to watch the master at work. I am compiling notices here. The film opened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals in September, and will open across the United States in October and November. I am glad to know that it seems to have an audience beyond people like me, who find the rhythms and humanness of public service fascinating.
It was a highlight of my career to be able to spend time with Frederick Wiseman, and to watch him work. I have been a fan since I was a teenager.
"Even a native New Yorker like myself, born and bred to despise Boston’s sports franchises, clean streets, comparatively lower crime rates and whiff of historical superiority, cannot deny how much Beantown impresses under Wiseman’s seasoned gaze, revealing sides of itself that few viewers outside the city may be aware of."
"Wiseman seems to suggest that there’s good spin and bad spin, and this stocky, twinkle-eyed Irish Bostonian, who serves gravy at a Thanksgiving dinner for special needs adults and boasts at a municipal gala about the city’s low unemployment rate and success in fostering upward social mobility, is held up as an example of the canny yet virtuous politician, the anti-Trump in person."
“Boston’s city government is the opposite of what Trump stands for,” Wiseman’s said, and indeed, City Hall maintains a belligerent tone throughout, pitting Mayor Walsh’s office as anathema to Trump’s: a safety net for the downtrodden, a champion of inclusiveness, and a bellwether for the whole country to look up to and follow. “I realize in Boston we can’t solve the problems of the United States,” Walsh says halfway through, “but all it takes is one city.”
"Wiseman, 90, followed Boston's Democratic mayor Marty Walsh and his team for the best part of a year. The resulting four-hour film has been hailed as "a testament to American democracy" when so many of its tenets seem to be under threat. 'Mayor Walsh and Trump represent two extremes,' Wiseman told reporters."
Indie Wire: ‘City Hall’ Review: America Would Be a Better Place If Everyone Watched Wiseman’s 4.5-Hour Epic
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.
His ability to ennoble even the dreariest of bureaucratic entities never ceases to amaze.
Wiseman considers, with a lofty philosophical logic and an ardent sense of observation, the very nature of good government, as he sees it at work in Boston, with the mayoralty of Marty Walsh (who was elected in 2013 and reëlected in 2017).
With “City Hall” starting to make its way into the world in the middle of a pandemic in which the response has seemed less than ideal, it’s both comforting to see these gears being constantly in motion with the best intentions behind them as it follows Mayor Martin Walsh into meetings about better coordination of city services or planning the logistics of the parade celebrating the Red Sox recent World Series win or distressing when revealing the inefficiencies of the whole process and how slowly it yields results.
The film doesn’t in any way suggest the government of Boston is perfect. But it does suggest, I hope, that there’s a mayor who cares and is trying to implement programs and raise money for services that will make a difference in people’s lives.
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.
In City Hall, we are not observing a city ‘managing’ its population, we are observing a symbiotic relationship, within which the equality between the two parties is absolutely vital.
Wiseman films always have their share of vivid characters, but “City Hall” is the rare one to contain a figure who might be considered its hero or protagonist. That would be Mayor Marty Walsh, who sports a note-perfect Bahstahn accent and points to his Irish heritage as connecting him to the many immigrant communities contained in his city. For any New Yorker who’s lately been stewing over the ridiculous, endless pissing match between our mayor and governor, it’s refreshing to encounter a political leader as humble, dedicated and focused on the common good as Mayor Walsh appears to be.
Wiseman’s real focus in City Hall is the slow, uphill battle, championed by Walsh, to achieve social justice in the city of Boston, to honor diversity and inclusivity and remove the barriers to gender and racial parity (especially in the workplace) at a time when the federal government is moving backwards.
In time it becomes clear that Walsh isn’t the subject of “City Hall” but rather the most visible face of the city’s government, its good will ambassador. He also serves as a sharp counterpoint to President Trump, an unseen presence whose administration, policies and political agenda wind through the movie like a cord.
His film, narration-free as always, constitutes a love letter to civic governance, and the notion of democracy, at a time when public discourse seethes with scorn for urban life. It is also a celebration, simultaneously clear-eyed and optimistic, of what Boston’s government, under its mayor, Martin J. Walsh, has been trying to achieve in a city that’s endured more than its share of racial turmoil in the recent past.
Walsh’s political passion is informed by his Catholic beliefs (“That’s a sin,” he says of the NRA’s negligence) and a genuine belief in the power of municipal government to change lives for the better: “The people that work for the city work for you,” he tells his fellow Bostonians more than once. It also reflects his commitment to diversity and extending the reach of the city’s services to marginalized communities. We often see Walsh addressing those communities with sincere, sometimes touchingly awkward vulnerability: Speaking to the concerns of veterans in recovery, he describes his own struggle with alcoholism. At a meeting with Latino constituents, he criticizes President Trump’s racism with memories of the anti-Irish prejudice endured by his own family.
And for City Hall, he’s chosen to look at the municipal workings of Boston, which still has a strong Irish-Catholic image for many people but is in fact “majority minority,” with a population that’s more than 50% people of color. How that gets navigated on a day-to-day basis is the film’s primary, never-stated subject.
Walsh makes sure that his constituents know that he’s been through childhood cancer and that he’s in recovery from booze. Yet he also encourages them to talk about themselves. And it’s in these moments that City Hall comes alive.
Walsh has an empathetic touch: At one point, addressing some of his Latino constituents, he criticizes the Trump administration's attacks on people of color and reflects on the discrimination endured by past generations of his Irish Catholic family. In another scene, he attends a fundraiser for nurses and reminisces about the kindness of the care he received as a childhood cancer patient. Sometimes Walsh overreaches in his attempts to relate to his fellow Bostonians, but it's moving to see him make the effort. And he seems genuine in his belief that municipal government can effect real, beneficial change in his citizens' lives.
I guess cinema and public appearances are platforms that engender more empathy that say, social media. However, there’s something brave about depicting a mayor exposing such vulnerable personal secrets. Wiseman depicts Walsh’s flaws too. He plops the camera in front of Walsh long enough and not edit anything out. And there’s something that a knowing audience can pick out, validly. And I know grass is greener, etc. But Wiseman makes Walsh look so good here that it makes me resent the kind of mayors we have. How our mayors represent the boorish nouveaux riches and performative intellectuals plaguing our streets.
Its only recurring figure is Marty Walsh, serving his second term as Mayor of Boston. And serving isn’t some vague rhetoric here, his moments on screen are all focused on his duty to his electorate. He appears at holiday celebrations, interdepartmental meetings, environmental roundtables, and a televised celebration of the Red Sox World Series victory. It is unexpectedly heartening to see a mayoral leader so focused on progressive policy and in favor of accountability and humanity. Walsh holds himself with unmistakable purpose and conscience and his addresses are always his own words, delivered in his recognizable Boston accent.
The same sense of contemplation and perseverance propels “City Hall” to its full-circle moment, an affecting testament to the countless anonymous people who undergird the part of a functional democracy that’s routinely taken for granted or demonized as the “Deep State.” Wiseman delivers an engrossing rebuke to that toxic myth by putting viewers into their own deep state: In this case, one of reflection, admiration and profound gratitude.
It’s easy to see why Wiseman would want to capture the tenure of Walsh as mayor of Boston. He has strong basic values of equity and fairness, and after overcoming a brief addiction which taught him the importance of acknowledging emotions and talking about significant experiences, he is sensitive to the challenges and needs of the disadvantaged whether by race, sex, or ethnicity. This allows him the capacity to move the city forward in practices, policies, and programs that are meant to benefit the general public.
Fred Wisemen is not so much a director as he is a symphony conductor. His latest documentary, City Hall, is a testament to this. At a sprawling four and a half hours, he finds beats and rhythms within his subjects, providing a texture and pattern that builds into melodies and occasionally swells into crescendos
His latest masterpiece is City Hall, which moves us through the workings of the city of Boston, led by its progressive and skillful mayor, Martin Walsh, and his seemingly endless numbers of civil servants who keep nearly every aspect of the city moving and functional…mostly.
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.
The sometimes profound cynicism of some of Wiseman’s earlier films is replaced here by the even more profound conviction that people are at the heart of government and that many of those people just want to help.
There’s a particular focus on Boston’s diversity, along with how city services attempt to meet the needs of its substantial immigrant population. On both the official and personal levels, we see Bostonians reconciling with the city’s particular history of racism while working out how to enact a more progressive future.
Finally, Mayor Marty Walsh speaks. He talks about how his experience of alcoholism chimes with the sense of dislocation and stress that returning veterans must feel. He’s speaking extemporaneously. The comparison is in no way gratuitous or self-serving. This isn’t a politician talking to voters. It’s one human being who’s suffered talking to other human beings who’ve suffered even more.
The Government Center delve unfolds in a series of chapter-esque meanders between the micro and macro with plenty of shots of Boston’s iconic skyline and landmarks to root you. The rendering should make plenty of Beantowners proud and Walsh, seemingly ever aware of the camera, comes off crisp, progressive and inclusive — a shining illumination that may pose something of an extra hurdle for upcoming challenger Michelle Wu and others.
When I saw City Hall for the first time this summer, smack dab at the center of the pandemic, I was initially perplexed by its lack of explicit befuddlement at the political leaders it depicts; I was, at the moment, craving more of the bitter irony Wiseman let seep into many of his early films. Then the election happened; Biden won. And that punctuating question, about the efficacy of well-meaning Democrats, became much more resonant. City Hall’s barely adorned and adamantly unruffled depiction of Walsh’s Boston precedes the Covid era and election season — only barely. These problems are inseparably tied up in the questions raised, the humanity witnessed, the limits exposed by this movie. A case in point: As of this writing, Mayor Walsh is among the names circling President-elect Biden’s incumbent cabinet. On its surface, in so many ways, City Hall could read as an endorsement. But politics aren’t that simple — and Wiseman’s movie most certainly isn’t, either.
City Hall is sort of like watching a puzzle being put together in real time (it's over four hours!), only the pieces are people, meetings, ideas and industries, and the final picture is of a stable democracy.
In responding to inevitable speculation that his choice to focus on the boldly anti-Donald Trump Mayor Walsh (who declared Boston a “sanctuary city” for undocumented people) was, itself, a political statement, Wiseman noted, revealingly, “ ‘City Hall’ is an anti-Trump film because the mayor and the people who work for him believe in democratic norms. They represent everything Donald Trump doesn’t stand for.”
Funny story about how the film came to be made. Yvonne is the Mayor's assistant, and she sorts his mail. She makes piles. She'll say, "oh this one is housing, so it's for Sheila." "This one is veterans, so it's for the commissioner." "This one is weird and I don't know what to do with it, so it's for Joyce." And that's how Fred Wiseman's letter got into my hands. Of course I rolled my eyes when she handed it to me. Then I looked at it. "Hi, my name is Frederick Wiseman and I am a filmmaker..." I shrieked, "Oh my God, Yvonne, do you know what this is?" She just laughed. I then called the five whole people in City Hall who would understand why I was so excited, because I would need backup to convince everyone this was a good idea. And that's what we did! In the process, we indoctrinated a few of the younger City Hall folks, who are now BIG Fred fans for life. So, I won't complain ever again if Yvonne brings me the weird mail.