“The concept of resilience is a powerful one.” Channelling the fortitude and resolve with which his beloved city of Boston recovered from the 2013 marathon bombing, Mayor Marty Walsh’s words echo a key tenet of Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall.
One of many intangible pillars that provide the sturdy framework of this epic 270-minute documentary, veteran filmmaker Wiseman’s latest work is a muted love letter to Boston, its institutions and its history – but above all, the strength and will of its people to overcome.
Building much of City Hall around Walsh’s public appearances, speeches, meetings with local residents and various boards, it is a film of much talk and little action per se. Rehabilitation, renovation, renewal and many a worthwhile, progressive initiative may be the ultimate goals, but procedure, budget restrictions and conditions imposed at the State and Federal level form constant roadblocks. Immediately clear, though, is that from one room to the next and on many floors, behind the unforgiving, brutalist exterior of the Boston municipal government building, lies a hive of unending activity.
For behind the bricks and mortar are countless hard-working folk looking out for those in need, doing what they can to improve the circumstances of their fellow Bostonians. Bookended by minor issues being resolved by the 311 call centre – stray pets, potholes, queries on opening times – much, if not most, of the everyday work on show in Wiseman’s film is mundane. It may not be glamorous, but sitting as a fly on the wall of meeting rooms, he documents the minutiae without comment and – without really being able to say how or why – we’re soon hooked.
No names or official titles appear on screen, dates have to be deduced (City Hall charts a period from 2018 to 2019), there’s no real grandstanding or ‘arc’ to speak of, but as we criss-cross the building, and the city at large, we soon relate very closely to these issues. It is in the substance of what is said, in the fibre of these people and what they promise – or at least pledge – that counts here. And amid the unending buzzword talk of task forces, pipelines and masterplans, there are momentary high points: the joy of witnessing a same-sex marriage; Latinx men and women hearing of new opportunities; women of colour instilled with self-belief and a sense of their true worth; an anecdote as simple as an exhausted new father’s welcome reprieve from a parking ticket.
Whether or not the latter would have happened without a camera crew present is perhaps a cynical point to make, but it illustrates that there is humanity behind the bureaucratic process here. Little attention is paid to the camera throughout, and there is no across-the-fourth-wall address or direct questioning. We are merely a silent partner, observing. There may be the occasional shot of Boston’s landmarks – the Bunker Hill Monument, the Massachusetts State House – but City Hall is more concerned with homes, community centres, the living, breathing elements of the city and its people.
Garbage men crunching a bed frame and mattress into nothing in the back of their truck; a road maintenance crew going about their work; tree surgeons mulching down newly trimmed limbs. It’s oddly meditative, mesmerising. Mayor Walsh may sit atop the pile in City Hall, but Wiseman dedicates ample time to the everyday heroes putting in the hard graft that otherwise does not receive the recognition it should. Watching the film in early 2021, this is one element that really resonates, in light of the last year. Seeing his diverse city and liberal administration as a beacon of hope that could radiate across the US, Walsh is nonetheless well aware of the limitations faced by his office.
He – and by extension the film – wears his Democratic colours proudly on both sleeves. Harking back to a time when Obama’s door was always open to him, he laments that “we haven’t done that with this President.” Not verbalised, but thick with meaning, the inference is clear. And in spite of the best intentions, there are those who do fall between the cracks. A man whose house is riddled with damp and rats, states, “My spirit’s broken,” in one of the film’s most – and rare – poignant moments. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And this, hopefully, is one of many wrongs that would soon be righted. Never truly going behind the scenes, whether Walsh’s rhetoric – and that of city employees as they attend school board meetings, discussions on affordable housing, the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and many more issues – is to be wholeheartedly believed, will be subjective, but it is hard to question his fervour and sincerity.
Attending a rally for nurses, he speaks of the care he received as a child when suffering with cancer; at an early Senior Action Council meeting, he sympathises with the way those present struggle with healthcare costs, alluding to his own family’s past difficulties; his plight to conquer alcoholism by speaking out and confiding in others when hearing veterans speak of PTSD and the ongoing after-effects of combat. It is a brand of compassionate, relatable politics that has been sorely missing from the US since 2016, and there is something stirring, reassuring in hearing it at a grass roots level. A proud Irish-American, Walsh talks about his experiences and where he has come from a great deal, because his heritage and the city flow through his veins.
For a film in which the word ‘trauma’ appears multiple times, it is remarkable how little visible conflict there is in City Hall. But just as the spectre of the bombings hangs in the air as the Red Sox 2018 World Series win parade is organised, the salt-of-the-earth inhabitants of this vibrant city know that bringing about change is a marathon, not a sprint. Wiseman’s film is the same, and well worth the long run.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63