Frederick Wiseman, who turned 91 in January, is one of the secular saints of public broadcasting. In nearly 50 years as a documentarian, he has examined a variety of American institutions in films of sometimes-daunting length. Disciplined, austere, and revolutionary in style, his films are a rebuke to the generally braying tone of popular entertainment, and equally perhaps to the more coercive techniques of mainstream documentary filmmaking. His career, almost entirely underwritten by public television, is both a durable achievement and a monument to the dangers of official culture. To be beyond criticism is a dangerous place for an artist to find himself.
Wiseman’s most recent film, City Hall, is four and half hours long. Its deliberate pacing is essential to his basic point that government, even in its most heroic mode, involves above all else the ability to tolerate boredom and irritation: to sit through yet one more meeting; to endure the occasional bad faith of one’s opponents; to accept that the people you serve often act as if they don’t even have their own best interests at heart. The most stirring parts of City Hall involve government at its least glamorous, showing the applause-less work of the building inspector, the garbage man, and the archivist.
A seemingly too-long sequence featuring an exterminator pays off beautifully when an older resident, who does not seem overly troubled by the vermin in his home, reveals what he really wants: to tell somebody his story and to share his suffering. We understand that this is what the patient exterminator was waiting for all along. In this moment, Wiseman has fulfilled John Updike’s charge to the narrative artist, “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”
City Hall is partly a profile of Boston’s current mayor, Marty Walsh. Walsh has the right backstory for Boston politics: Irish immigrant parents; gritty working-class neighborhood (Dorchester); humanizing childhood illness (in his case, lymphoma); the moment of grace, when he’s selected to attend the elite Newman School, changing the trajectory of his life. He is not scintillatingly bright and does not express himself with any great facility. Like President Biden, whose gestures he often echoes, Walsh sees himself as a unifier, a consensus builder. Like Biden, conviction and self-belief are what he has in place of imagination. Walsh performs the gestures of humility—a recovering alcoholic, he is a twelve-step adherent—but he lacks the humility essential to a public official, a sense of the limitations of what government can be expected to do. The story has a happy ending, though; Walsh is expected to become Biden’s Secretary of Labor in a few days.
City Hall follows Walsh in his daily rounds, as he tirelessly tells each group to which he speaks exactly what it wants to hear. Like Biden, he is personally appealing even when he is being transparently manipulative. Perhaps reasonable people can differ on whether this ability to “read the room” has much to do with solving the branching complexities of governance in a city like Boston, but it has an immense amount to do, in the increasingly performative world of Democratic politics, with becoming the kind of public official who gets regarded as a comer.
Two scenes from this very long film are especially telling. In the first, a deputy mayor describes the city’s various efforts to strong-arm property developers through minority set-asides in subcontracting and employment, “good wage” promises that substitute the city’s judgment for that of the market, and endless environmental and sustainability studies. Of course, all these requirements have the inevitable effect of driving up housing prices, which means that only the wealthy can afford to live in the city center. It seems fair to mention here that Boston has the highest income inequality of any major city in the United States. It may seem hard to believe that someone could reach the upper-bureaucratic levels of a major international city while remaining fundamentally hostile to the idea of free enterprise, but a number of Boston officials appear to have done so.
The second scene shows a long community meeting about the opening of a marijuana dispensary in a blighted city neighborhood. One can imagine a more prosocial use of space than a marijuana dispensary, but it is a legal business, and its Asian immigrant owners seem committed to being good neighbors. They are met with relentless hostility, some of it vaguely racial, along with unfounded accusations and the kinds of “demands” that are the stock in trade of self-appointed community activists.
After what would seem to be several hours of this, the leader of the dispensary’s business team remarks, “I am here to listen to you, but at some point the question is, do you want economic development in this neighborhood or don’t you?” This seemed to me an excellent question, and I hoped to hear it answered. Instead, Wiseman gives us shots of faces in the crowd, apparently disgusted with the businessman’s presumption. Wiseman’s own point of view here is not discernible; as always, he remains the ghost in the machine. But from a filmmaker who has long pushed the question of how much may be expressed solely through editing, the cut is telling.
Over the course of four and half hours, the viewer’s native interest in Wiseman’s subject matter is worn away by the cant of city bureaucracy: we hear plenty about “diversity,” “vulnerable populations,” “expanding access,” and above all, “community,” which as used here means not the demos or even a single neighborhood, but simply the urban underclass, those taught to expect that government will provide and ask nothing of them in return. One is struck again and again by how pleased people in these community meetings appear to be with themselves. This is not success—problems met and solved—but more like the beatific glow of the virtue elite. It may be a sign of Wiseman’s obtuseness, but perhaps more likely his stubbornness, that the film he has made as a celebration of city government is exactly the film a cynic might have made to show why that same government spends freely but struggles to deliver basic services.