Documentary luminary and social activist Fredrick Wiseman — a man infamously known for his dramatically long docs regarding the human condition and the evolution of society itself — has a strange fascination with the city of Boston. His two longest features in some way or form, encapsulate the anxiety and well-versed progressive development of the renowned Massachusetts’ city. His 1989 feature Near Death is a perfect example of Wiseman’s consistent eye for humanitarian ethics and development, shot against a common known backdrop. His latest feature City Hall is no different. The film is a vigorously detailed depiction of the ever-growing foundations of democracy in Boston; a cut and dry observational think piece on the equity of policy and the art of democratic processing.
Infrastructure, food banks, parades, gun control, housing, evictions, education, cannabis distribution, work rights, and parking meters. Wiseman compiles his film with images of the mundane; scenes that provoke a sense of first-world relatability against Boston City Hall’s extensive corridors of logistics. Wiseman has his composition style broken down to a tee. He opens each scene with an elongated shot of one of his subjects speaking, in which after a few unbroken minutes he cuts to a few reaction shots of people listening and observing. He concludes each of these specific scenes with a medium shot indicating the end of a specific thought or observation. Wash, rinse, repeat. The man knows how to craft a genuinely entertaining fragment in time, where his previous directing efforts have helped evolve his artistic voice throughout the past decades.
The issue with City Hall more relies upon a lack of present visual storytelling. More than half of the film is largely conversation based, which drowns the audience’s attention into a pool of boredom. With the cluster of boardroom sessions, conferences, and neighbourhood meetings, the film loses its personal touch. Wiseman’s unfiltered documentary style works best when he focuses on the human element of a specific scenario. His unbiased appeal creates a feeling of warmth, whenever we follow a random civilian throughout their daily hustle and bustle. Scenes of officers printing tickets, or a simple moment of normal life in an animal hospital create a sense of genuine authenticity. In these short fragments, Wiseman creates a safe communal viewing experience, as if we’re the civilians of this bodacious interconnected city.
City Hall may have arguably benefited from an even longer runtime, in which Wiseman could have spent more of his efforts on spotlighting the people of Boston over Mayor Martin Walsh and his cabinet of political co-workers. But in general, it’s always great to see Wiseman take interest in these broad subjects, as he attempts to document the most authentic version of the truth. Film is a terrific medium to present and communicate one’s history, and within layers upon layers of mind numbing conversations, there’s a genuine passion behind Wiseman’s vision of an evolved society. We still have a lot more work to do, but as long as we keep our pace steadfast, we’ll soon reach the utopia that Wiseman will eventually document for us one day.
Dir: Frederick Wiseman
Country: United States
Run time: 275 minutes
City Hall screened at this year’s New York Film Festival. The film is currently seeking UK distribution.