NYFF 2020 Review: 'City Hall' is a Terrific Ode to Public Service

"City Hall," the latest film from filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, takes audiences behind the curtain in Boston to see how their local government functions.
User Rating: 9

Frederick Wiseman earned his legendary status long ago. The documentarian released his first feature in 1967 and quickly established his cinema vérité style. Wiseman’s ability to simply plant his cameras and turn processes into cinema is nearly unmatched. Yet his topics, including small towns, boxing gyms, and libraries, can feel too niche for some viewers. While Wiseman does not reinvent his process with his latest film City Hall, the underlying message of service feels particularly poignant. Holding up an image of the hardworking people who make a city-run feels wildly political from Wiseman, and as usual, he captures the energy of hope in the process.

City Hall explores those who work for the city of Boston. There are a few timestamps throughout, including the 2018 World Series, but for the most part, Wiseman’s activities feel timeless. Men and women throughout different departments tell their stories through the mere act of their service. Wiseman rarely asks personal details from his subjects and lets his camera capture public disclosures. He also captures acts of compassion and grace from officials throughout the city.

Perhaps the grandest departure for the famed director is how often Mayor Matt Walsh recurs throughout the film. Walsh appears everywhere, from small council meetings to veterans day celebrations. There’s an empathy and honesty from the Mayor that is hard to ignore, and Wiseman repeatedly allows him to speak his truths. There are moments throughout the scenes where Walsh says the opposite of a political answer, coming clean about his past and reasons for pursuing policies. For Wiseman, this fascination with Walsh feels like a critique of national politics. The simple act of showcasing an authentic man trying to make connections across the city feels fairly inflammatory for this director.

Of course, Wiseman does not only focus on Walsh. There are many moments where women and people of color take control of committees. Again, the city of Boston has never really been known for its diversity, like New York or Philadelphia. Yet to showcase a government with new ideas and backgrounds being pushed is exciting. From simple cooking classes to debates on public job initiatives, truly diverse coalitions showcased. Wiseman never cuts his subjects down to short snippets either. Instead, he lets his camera roll, allowing 10 of 15-minute discussions to play out in full.

Once again, Wiseman’s ability to capture life in the city leads to a very long runtime. While he had settled into a three-hour runtime for several of his recent films, City Hall showcases a whopping four and a half hour runtime. For many, this will turn them away from the film. Yet Wiseman’s intent is clear. The everyday mundanity of City Hall may not be appealing to all. But these are the places that directly affect your life on a day-to-day basis. If you do not have public servants willing to put in the time and energy to make your life better, a city can crumble. While the runtime might be long, City Hall marks another masterwork in Wiseman’s career. In terms of accessibility, practicality, and message, his latest is one of the best films of the year.


Written by
Alan French has been writing about TV and entertainment awards for more than five years. He joined AwardsCircuit in 2016, where he became a Rotten Tomatometer-approved critic. He has also written for WeBoughtABlog, 1428 Elm, and InsideTheMagic. He's interviewed directors, actors, and craft teams from Stranger Things, The Good Place, Atlanta, and more. He holds a Masters in Mass Communication from the University of Central Florida and two Bachelors degrees from Florida State University. When he’s not watching movies, he’s usually at one of Florida’s theme parks.

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