My very first introduction to Frederick Wiseman‘s work clocks in at a whopping four and a half hours. Yeah, this isn’t your extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, but an in-depth look at Boston’s city government, covering racial justice, housing, climate action, and more.
The only problem with something of this magnitude and without a real final act to work towards, is that ‘City Hall‘ isn’t just your regular documentary. At times I thought, “Why is Wiseman showing us all of this?“, and the answer is quite simple: for archival purposes. Throughout his career, he has studied places and institutions, but his hometown of Boston is the perfect next subject to sink his teeth in. It deserves your undivided attention, but with movie theaters being closed, an at-home experience makes it so much easier to get distracted from what’s being shown on screen. There’s a bunch of meetings, discussions and workshops on a wide range of different topics, all filmed as if you’re actually attending them yourself.
These gatherings take place in sad looking offices and conference rooms, split from one another with views from Boston’s beautiful architecture and streets. It doesn’t exactly stay within the walls of the titular ‘City Hall‘, instead Wiseman starts covering a lot of important and not-so-important press conferences and discussions – school board meetings, pre-patrol police updates and an interview with mayor Walsh at a Red Sox-game, to name a few. It all just depends what interests you, to keep you fascinated with what’s being discussed and captured by Wiseman’s all-seeing eye.
Marty Walsh pops up a couple of times throughout the entire doco, who is a rather interesting politician being motivated and personal with whomever he interacts with. Considering what’s been happening in the USA, he not only positions himself as an anti-Trump figure, but also knows the problems of his city and is ready to change the bad image Boston has been facing for decades. Gun control, inclusivity on the workfloor and eviction prevention, you name it and he’ll look into it. The transparency in which he handles all of these decisions are captured by Wiseman and forever documented as some sort of proof. But it seems, Boston finally has someone in charge who’s ready to make that change happen.
There’s no real structure in this whopper of a documentary and that makes it hard to really pinpoint any particular stronger or weaker moments. Everything sort of blends together, as there’s no need to stand out. What does always capture one’s attention is the passionate and heartfelt human encounters between those who really care about the topics they represent and those who struggle to survive in a city that takes too long to tackle the problems for once and for all. You can tell Wiseman is a curious man who really wants to know everything about everything, and that could become quite challenging for those who otherwise really enjoy watching documentaries.
City Hall is a gargantuan piece of work, that challenges the viewer’s patience, but knows how to peel off the layers of the workings of a city in dire need of positive change. Wiseman opens doors that are otherwise closed to the public, making this a once in a lifetime viewing experience.
Review – ‘City Hall’
Reviewed online (screener provided by publicist), December 9, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 272 min.
PRODUCTION: A Zipporah Films release of a Ford Foundation – Just Films, ITVS, PBS, Puritan Films production. Producers: Karen Konicek, Frederick Wiseman.
CREW: Director/editing: Frederick Wiseman. Cinematography: John Davey.
WITH: Marty Walsh (as himself).