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“City Hall” Movie Review by Daniel Barnes

City Hall

City Hall (2020; Frederick Wiseman)


By Daniel Barnes

*Now playing at the Roxie Virtual Cinema.

Nonagenarian documentarian Frederick Wiseman (Ex Libris and Monrovia, Indiana ) applies his usual measured and methodical approach to this look at Boston’s city government. No one chronicles American institutions with Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall thoroughness, although City Hall is thorough to the tune of 274 minutes of public forums, press conferences and committee meetings. For audiences weaned on the pandering and manipulative documentaries that dominate the contemporary discourse, City Hall might seem punishing. But while it hardly ranks among Wiseman’s best work, it should satisfy anyone who appreciates his simple, unsentimental and democratic approach to documentary filmmaking.

“The Gears of Government Bureaucracy”

Although Wiseman resists narrative crutches and self-explanations at every turn, we can gather that he filmed City Hall throughout the neighborhoods of Boston in late 2018 and early 2019. The closest thing we get to a protagonist is Mayor Marty Walsh, a compassionate Irish Catholic determined to serve his increasingly diverse constituency. Figuring out how to do that without getting caught in the gears of government bureaucracy is the central struggle of City Hall. There is a strong focus on racial and economic equity, with various stakeholders fighting to make their voices heard and access government assistance. Even the National Anthem is sung as a discussion between white and black police officers. Wiseman sees that in a world of federal government-sanctioned fear, hate and inequity, level-field discourse becomes a revolutionary act.

The Climb and the Fall

I was also supposed to review Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb this week, but with Sacramento County movie theaters shutting down again, the film got pulled from the local release calendar. Long story short: I loved the performances by co-writers Covino and Marvin as embattled best friends, but I felt that the film’s single-shot gimmick overshadowed a sharp script and weakened the overall impact. GRADE: B-

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.