I seriously doubt it’s what Fred Wiseman had in mind, but his new movie, “City Hall,” might turn out to be the most effective campaign ad Marty Walsh didn’t have to buy.
There’s much more nuance when you look a little closer — and at 4½ hours, “City Hall” gives a viewer plenty of time to look — but the legendary documentarian’s second-longest work in more than a half century of moviemaking gives ample space to Boston’s 54th mayor, whether he’s chairing meetings inside the title edifice or (more likely) speaking at a civic, charity, or community event. I can’t think of a Wiseman film that places one person so firmly at the center of its expansive view. That said, the new documentary was shot in 2018 and can’t help feeling out of joint with a much more precarious 2020. (A scene where the mayor boasts about the city’s low unemployment rate is just one example.) And “City Hall” is landing in a fall festival season that feels similarly upended. The movie first showed last week at the Venice Film Festival, which was held in person but with strictly controlled COVID-19 guidelines. It then “opened” Sept. 14 at a Toronto International Film Festival to which the press has not been physically invited for the first time in the event’s 45-year history.
I’ve been going to TIFF, the starting gun for the autumn “serious movie” season, for over two decades. This is the first year I’m watching the movies from home, via digital streaming. New titles become available at 11 a.m. each day and are available for accredited press to screen for 48 hours. The public can stream most of the films for the price of a ticket at digital.tiff.net. The festival runs through Sept. 19.
There are glitzier movies on offer at TIFF 2020 and the usual stirrings of Oscar talk; I’ll be writing about both in upcoming columns. If there’s a buzz movie, it’s probably “Nomadland,” from director Chloe Zhao (“The Rider”), in which a weathered Frances McDormand plays a middle-aged woman traveling across the American West by camper van. But the Wiseman film — the 46th effort from the 90-year-old director who practically invented cinema verité — is its own monumental edifice. His documentaries tend to focus on institutions, groups of humans, and process: “High School” (1968), “Juvenile Court” (1973), “Central Park” (1989), “Boxing Gym” (2010), “In Jackson Heights” (2015). The films have no narration or explanatory titles; they simply immerse a viewer in meetings and conversations and other gatherings for the express purpose of observing how people live together and groups function.
That sounds like slow death, but the films are fascinating. I always approach a Wiseman film with trepidation, as though I’m about to scale the Cliffs of Insanity, and in 10 minutes I’m on top of the world. “City Hall,” in which the Cambridge-based filmmaker takes his cameras across the river, is no different, and yet he may have copped to an agenda in a statement to the Venice Film Festival that read in part, “I made ‘City Hall’ to illustrate why government is necessary for people to successfully live together.” This country could use the reminder.
Despite the title, the movie wanders across the vast expanse of Boston, taking in neighborhoods poor and rich and middle class and seeing how the services and decisions that emanate from City Hall work their way out to the citizens for worse and mostly better. It’s really a portrait of a city’s nervous system and something of a real-life “Sims.” We see garbage collectors in Charlestown, street workers in Allston, soup kitchens in Roxbury. We’re in a lot of rooms where a lot of people try to hammer out policies and practices that will benefit the widest possible array of Bostonians.
A couple of things stand out. Despite a national (and to some extent local) image of Boston as a town run by white politicians, “City Hall” emphasizes how diverse the government actually is in the makeup of its employees — on all levels — and how dedicated they are to the full range of their constituents. The city’s development boom under Walsh is seen as both a gentrifying cause for concern and an unstoppable force for gentrification. A long sequence at a community meeting in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood shows an underserved population wary of getting the shaft from a consortium pushing a new cannabis store. The view of the police may be quite a bit more benign than if the film had been made two years later.
Mostly, however, “City Hall” shows how a mayor can serve as a city’s symbolic conscience and embodiment of its ideals. To outsiders, the movie’s Martin J. Walsh may even seem a heroic figure (as opposed to “our Mahty”) — a self-effacing and inclusive progressive who can speak to his own struggles and connect them with those of his listeners. The man has the common touch and an ability to make a stem-winder sound like it’s coming from the heart. Which maybe it is. After nearly 50 films, Fred Wiseman is nobody’s fool and he himself has said his greatest asset is “a [b.s.] meter.” With “City Hall” he has made a movie about an idea we’re in danger of forgetting: that government can work.
“City Hall” will be part of the GlobeDocs festival in October and will receive a theatrical release in November.