Frederick Wiseman is here to help. For a stunning half century, the documentary filmmaker has created a genre unto himself: candid, cinema-verite deep dives into the institutions that condition our lives but rarely invite outsiders in. In 1967, Wiseman made his astonishing debut with “Titicut Follies,” a chronicle of sadistic practices within a Massachusetts prison psychiatric facility that was so wrenching it was banned by state authorities. Since then, Wiseman has created similarly detailed portraits of schools, hospitals, housing projects and state legislatures — as well as the odd ballet company or boxing gym — always to the same entrancing effect.
With “City Hall,” Wiseman brings his quiet observational skills to the day-to-day operations of local government, which is why the film is so well-timed for this particular moment. After a particularly bruising period of campaign hyperbole and cutthroat competition, “City Hall” reminds us of what it’s all been about: the difficult, demanding, damnably imperfect work of governing.
Starting with the voices of operators at a 311 call center, “City Hall” plunges viewers into the quotidian life of Boston's titular institution — here being run by two-term mayor Marty Walsh. In 3- to 4-minute segments, the film visits strategy meetings and speeches, a wedding here and a pest-control call there; we eavesdrop on law enforcement briefings and a fire inspection and watch, mesmerized, as a trash compactor takes three twin beds into its lethal, slowly moving maw. The sheets are still on them.
There's surely a story behind that image, having to do with heartbreak, abandoned dreams, dispossession — or, just maybe, a new beginning. True to Wiseman’s now-practiced style, devoid of narration, commentary or musical ornamentation, it’s left up to the viewer to fill in the speculative blanks. “City Hall’s” longest sequence, a Veterans Day celebration during which former soldiers share intimate accounts of their service and its costs, works like a microcosm of the film itself: The vignettes gain power and emotion as they accrue into a moving testament to civic life, even at its most flawed.
That scene also demonstrates the only weakness of “City Hall,” which is that it reflexively brings the focus back to Walsh, just when the audience is most transfixed by the citizens he’s serving. This isn’t to say that the mayor isn’t a compelling figure: Whether he's conducting a meeting about police-community relations, celebrating a Red Sox World Series win or strategizing about an upcoming NAACP convention, he emerges as the kind of sincere, straight-talking guy who redeems the battered notion of a career in public service.
But even at his most self-disclosing, Walsh is outshined by the people of Boston who populate “City Hall” and reflect a rapidly changing city, either as municipal employees or their customers. The great gift of Wiseman’s films is how they cut through glib rhetoric and lazy stereotypes. In “City Hall,” the stars are the “impersonal bureaucrats” and “cynical politicians” who have become such convenient tropes within a greater anti-government narrative. Clearly Wiseman has a point of view — all great artists do — and his seeks to rescue that maligned entity known vaguely as Big Government to expose its beating, if imperfect, human heart.
At 4½ hours, “City Hall” is a demanding film. But it rewards that commitment with an experience that is both hypnotically beautiful and subtly encouraging. Wiseman’s camera, wielded by cinematographer John Davey, is both penetrating in its specificity and expansive in its compassion. Every now and then, they pull the lens back, taking in silent images of buildings, neighborhoods and public spaces and giving viewers a moment to pause and keep going.
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.