Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall Is the Feel-Good Political Film We Need

The O.G. of Slow TV went to Boston to capture a government of the people and for the people.
  • Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh in a scene from City Hall. (PBS)
    Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh in a scene from City Hall. (PBS)
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    The purpose of this review is to convince you to spend five hours of your life watching the new Frederick Wiseman film, which isn’t as tall an order as it used to be. Compared with a seven-hour Netflix movie — you know, the one billed as a “limited series” in eight episodes — a Fred Wiseman film seems like a walk in Central Park (which incidentally is the name, and subject, of a film he made in 1989). And this one, City Hall, with its optimistic message about government, will appeal to many who want to feel better about 2021 than they have about 2020.

    Still, Wiseman’s spare, observational documentaries take some getting used to. First-time viewers often ask after a few minutes, “What the hell is this?” or, “This is fascinating, but what the hell is this?” Trust me, though — watching one of these is less like going to film school than high school (about which he made two films — in 1968 and 1994).

    City Hall follows the life of a major city, Boston, through the people who work for its government. There are scenes of trash getting picked up, streets getting swept and painted, animals getting rescued, caw-pawkahs appealing pawking tickets, inspectors inspecting, police and fire folks doing their thing, development meetings, budget meetings, housing meetings, community meetings, people getting fed, people getting married, people getting drunk (at a city parade for the Red Sox) and, for some reason, three minutes of people shopping for groceries. (It may have been two minutes.) The mayor, Marty Walsh, makes no fewer than fourteen appearances in the film, usually giving lengthy remarks or presiding over meetings.

    Here is an actual PR quote from Wiseman about his film: “City Hall shows a city government offering a wide variety of important and necessary services to a major American city whose population exemplifies the history of diversity of America. The Boston city government is designed and strives to offer these services in a manner consistent with the Constitution and democratic norms.”

    But I’m here to say, don’t believe the hype, by which I mean the complete lack of hype. Wiseman has made a film about people living in Boston that is every bit as amazing as his film about people dying in Boston (Near Death, 1989). How does he do it? To borrow a phrase: volume, volume, volume! Working with just two other crew members, Wiseman shoots over 100 hours of footage in about six weeks, then spends months carefully going over the footage until, as Mark Binelli of The New York Times puts it, “he knows the material so well he can recite the dialogue.” It takes him that long to figure out what his film is going to be about. This vérité method is justly famous among docmakers, and very different from today’s formulaic reality TV, where video is chopped up and stuffed into uniform sardine cans of content, not unlike the canning operations in Belfast, Maine (a great film from 1997).

    Frederick Wiseman. (Erik Madigan Heck/PBS)

    Wiseman has often claimed not to really know what his philosophy of filmmaking is, but you don’t have to be a cineaste to see that his films have to do with institutions, society, or both. His Big Idea is one that he shares with Ken Burns, which is: We need to put our faith in institutions, as flawed as they are, because institutions are how individuals form societies and improve their well-being.

    Like Burns, Wiseman’s career has played out on PBS, but that’s where the similarities end. Wiseman’s biggest fans tend to be the ones who see his films at festivals or art house cinemas, months before they air on television. And while PBS bangs the promotional drum for every Ken Burns film — I already have screeners of Hemingway, which doesn’t air until April — Wiseman’s films drop quietly on TV. The window for City Hall is Dec. 22 starting at 8 p.m. ET, running until after midnight.

    Burns is a master of narration and soundtrack, and his screen font is as recognizable as Woody Allen’s. Wiseman, however, does not use an announcer, music or graphics in his films. He lets his subjects explain everything — which they always do, thanks to the director’s masterful editing. Once you are willing to invest your precious capital of time in a Wiseman film, it pays compound interest. The biggest challenge, really, is having to downshift from the speed of other TV shows.

    Wiseman, who turns 91 on New Year’s Day, left a boring teaching job in the early 1960s to dabble in film. His debut doc in 1967, Titicut Follies, was a sensation. Somehow Massachusetts officials agreed to let him shoot inside the State Prison for the Criminally Insane, where the deplorable conditions were captured with just the right amount of absurdism. The state’s attorney general (future Watergate felon Elliot Richardson) made it almost impossible to see the film for many years. In 1968 Wiseman came to Kansas City at the invitation of the police chief (future FBI boss Clarence Kelley) and made the equally shocking Law And Order.

    He has always demanded total access, whether filming monks, state legislators, or a burlesque troupe. He has a habit of blending in with the wall paint, which leads to people speaking their minds seemingly unaware that they’re on camera. The results have rarely been as outrageous as those early works, but never fail to give remarkable insights into how we behave as social animals. And isn’t that pretty much what we’re all trying to figure out these days, how to get along in pandemics and politics?

    Liberal film critics have rushed to pronounce City Hall a defense of government in an age of anti-government rhetoric. But progressives and others who spend too much time on social media could also take a lesson. Again and again in City Hall we see people with conflicting views being forced to interact, to work with — or at least around — each other. It’s Politics 101. Raising your voice or delivering a saucy hot take only gets you so far.

    There’s a great scene in which a developer is being pressured by advocates for female and minority subcontractors. The discussion is all very civilized, but over several minutes it becomes clear that the developer didn’t get billions of dollars in city business by being dumb. The other people in the room take the measure of his power and respond accordingly.

    It’s the slow, quiet drama of negotiation. A woman at a city-sponsored roundtable urges women to study men in their element — playing golf and going out for drinks with these strange creatures — so they can bargain more effectively with them. In another scene, Mayor Walsh and Derrick Johnson turn a couch chat about plans for the upcoming convention of the NAACP, which Johnson leads, into a polite but insistent back-and-forth about Boston’s racial history. If you had the same argument on CNN, the ratio of heat to light would be inverted. But these two men will need each other in the future, so their disagreement sounds like agreement.

    City Hall is one of the more satisfying Fred Wiseman films I’ve seen, and has me rummaging through Kanopy — the fantastic streaming service I’ve raved about, which you can access for free with your library card — to watch more from its complete collection of works from the O.G. of Slow TV. I invite you to do the same. And if someone should walk through the room while you’re watching and comment, “That looks about as exciting as watching paint dry,” tell them they should see the one about dried paint.

    City Hall airs on PBS December 22nd at 8:00 PM ET and streams on through January 5.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Frederick Wiseman, PBS, Documentaries