Listen closely to all the meetings, public gatherings and one-on-one sit-downs that play out in “City Hall,” Frederick Wiseman’s beautifully expansive Boston symphony, and you’ll hear a gentle but insistent refrain about the importance of telling one’s story. Sometimes it emerges as individuals share their personal testimonies; sometimes it’s invoked in a more sweeping, general sense. A woman at a Veteran’s Day commemoration notes that one of the most important things we can do for America’s veterans is to “listen to their stories without judgment.” The mayor, describing Boston’s coordinated responses to a rash of deadly shootings in 2018, acknowledges, “I don’t think we do a good enough job of telling the story of what we actually do.”
All this might sound at first like documentary boilerplate, except that Wiseman, who turned 90 in January and is well into his sixth decade of filmmaking, could scarcely be less interested in generic beats or pat conclusions. And while one of the truths about his work may be self-evident — that he is a wonderful storyteller, a master at locating tension, emotion and drama between the lines of everyday existence — it’s one that can never be repeated often enough. With “City Hall,” his 45th feature, he has composed another epic from a series of intricate, carefully arranged miniatures, a four-and-a-half-hour sprawl of a movie that will leave you admiring its agility and concision.
The individuals who find themselves in front of his camera are usually there for just a few minutes, and only a handful are clearly identified. But those few minutes hold you rapt, and so do the next few, and then the next few, until you find yourself happily lost in a maze of colliding narratives, bound by themes and connections that are sometimes obvious and sometimes subliminal. (As usual, Wiseman served as his own editor.) You are whisked from a conversation on resiliency in housing development to a safety inspection at a construction site, with much walking and talking about caulking. A session on the important but vulnerable protections of the Fair Housing Act is followed by a diversity-minded lunchtime gathering where a woman shows her audience how to prepare shrimp lo mein.
These segments are buffered by fleeting images of Boston itself, as Wiseman and his longtime cinematographer, John Davey, tour the city’s skyline and street corners, its harbor-front views and historic rowhouses — and, of course, the divisive Brutalist architecture of Boston City Hall itself. The steady toggling between interiors and exteriors provides, as ever in Wiseman’s films, an almost musical rhythm that allow you the viewer and the movie itself to breathe. Here, the structure also underscores a crucial, foundational tension in the film, namely the gap between what local government sets out to do, with ambitious plans, service-minded ideals and tightly allocated budgets, and what it can meaningfully accomplish in the lives of its citizenry.
Sometimes that gap is measured in the presence and absence of dialogue — the sounds of human voices discussing policy and procedure, and the sounds of a city rumbling to life and going about its business. In one moment someone describes the specific challenges of making temporary housing accessible and functional to homeless at-risk youth; it’s a thoughtful, theoretical discussion, forcing you to imagine the concrete particulars. In the next, you are confronted by the very material reality of a garbage truck making its way down a street, compacting mattresses and other discarded items in one of the movie’s most casually arresting moments. Again and again, Wiseman’s camera finds the mesmerizing in the mundane.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh in a scene from the movie “City Hall.”
His method, as insistently democratic as ever, is to insist that no one person moving through the system — not the suited men and women hammering out finer policy points in conference rooms or the gardeners going about their work at Franklin Park — is any more or less important than the others. That includes the city’s hard-working Democratic mayor, Marty Walsh, even if he seems initially determined to prove otherwise, popping up at so many meetings and public events as to risk becoming the movie’s stealth protagonist. There he is at Fenway Park to celebrate the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series victory with beaming fans, or at a meeting to inform senior citizens about the benefits of the city’s Elderly Commission. Or at a food bank, where he uses a discussion of mass hunger to point out the ties between poverty and gun violence.
Walsh’s political passion is informed by his Catholic beliefs (“That’s a sin,” he says of the NRA’s negligence) and a genuine belief in the power of municipal government to change lives for the better: “The people that work for the city work for you,” he tells his fellow Bostonians more than once. It also reflects his commitment to diversity and extending the reach of the city’s services to marginalized communities. We often see Walsh addressing those communities with sincere, sometimes touchingly awkward vulnerability: Speaking to the concerns of veterans in recovery, he describes his own struggle with alcoholism. At a meeting with Latino constituents, he criticizes President Trump’s racism with memories of the anti-Irish prejudice endured by his own family.
Walsh’s empathy is moving to witness, but Wiseman knows it has its limits. In a perfect example of the movie’s structural subtleties, the mayor’s Latino outreach is echoed, much later, by a panel of Latina professionals who speak with downbeat honesty about the wage gap and other forms of workplace discrimination. For sheer authority, the mayor’s words can never match the experience of hearing the people of Boston (wait for it) tell their own stories.
Elsewhere, Walsh’s larger-than-life presence can seem all the more glaring in its absence. He doesn’t appear in the movie’s most extraordinary sequence, a meeting between Dorchester residents, many of them Black, and the Asian owners of a soon-to-open cannabis dispensary. The owners speak loftily about career opportunities, economic benefits and “turning things around” for Dorchester; the residents push back with a host of concerns about traffic, crime, employment and what seems to be an unsurprising lack of consideration for the needs of an already traumatized, under-invested neighborhood. In one sequence, Wiseman shows us how intersectional, and intractable, a community’s problems can be, and how ineffectual even good intentions, let alone mixed or bad ones, can be at resolving them.
Remarkably, given Wiseman’s career-long devotion to the democratic ideals of governance and the inner workings of human institutions, “City Hall” is his first picture to bear its particular title and only his second, after “Near Death” (1989), to be set in Boston, his hometown. That personal connection may account for this new movie’s scope and length — it’s his longest since 2007’s Idaho-set “State Legislature” — and the particular urgency of its telling. Whatever may be happening (this very week!) on the national stage, the film reminds us, the ground-level impact of local politics is no less worthy of advocacy and attention.
Because even attention as close and perceptive as Wiseman’s, of course, can never tell the full story. One scene in “City Hall” might have passed by unremarked had it not featured a prominent Boston School Committee member, identified onscreen by his name plate, who resigned in disgrace just this month after he was overheard mocking the names of Asian community members during a public Zoom call. I mention this because racism — individual or systemic, unconscious or overt — is one subject that Wiseman has spent much of his career doggedly exploring. And also because it raises a fascinating, perplexing question for the Wiseman faithful: What might this great artist make of the pandemic era, now that the meetings that are his cinema’s lifeblood have migrated to the virtual sphere? Are we ready for Frederick Wiseman’s “Zoom”? It remains to be seen — and, no less importantly, to be heard.
Running time: 4 hours, 35 minutes
Playing: Available Oct. 28 via Film Forum virtual cinema; additional virtual cinemas, Nov. 6, including Laemmle Theatres