scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Boston is the star in ‘City Hall’

Boston City Hall in Frederick Wiseman's "City Hall."Courtesy of Zipporah Films, Inc.

“City Hall,” Frederick Wiseman’s 43rd documentary, is a homecoming. Born and raised in Boston, the filmmaker now divides his time between Cambridge and Paris. So Wiseman brings a combination of familiarity and freshness to looking at the nuts and bolts of local government: how what happens inside a certain fortress-like building in the middle of City Hall Plaza reaches out to affect the lives of countless people. Wiseman has made something so mundane as to be absorbingly exotic, a civics-lesson procedural. As with any procedural, the people involved in the process are just as important to the story as the process is.


Starting Nov. 6, “City Hall” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. This being a Wiseman documentary, it has a somewhat epic length: 4½ hours. Ticket purchasers have a seven-day viewing window, though, so don’t be deterred by the time commitment.

Wiseman will take part in a livestreamed Q&A on Nov. 8, at 2 p.m.

There’s a temptation to see “City Hall” as the summing up of a remarkable career, one that has brought Wiseman three Emmys, an Oscar, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, and a Venice Film Festival Golden Lion. Truly, he is a lion not just of documentary filmmaking, but filmmaking, period. More than a summing up, though, it may better be understood as a digging deeper.

Traffic management, in "City Hall." Courtesy of Zipporah Films, Inc.

For more than half a century, Wiseman’s been making documentaries about institutions and documentaries about places. “City Hall” is both, looking at local government and a very specific locality. It begins with establishing shots of the skyline — a transitional device Wiseman uses throughout — and then brings us into a room with 311 operators in City Hall. That’s also how the documentary closes, a nice reminder that the work of local government goes on. In between, there’s a constant interplay between City Hall and downtown with the neighborhoods. The man who’s made “Aspen” (1991), “Belfast, Maine” (1999), and “Monrovia, Indiana” (2018) could just as easily have called his latest film “Boston.”


Wiseman shot “City Hall” in the fall of 2018. There are indicators of that point in time — the Red Sox World Series parade, the ballot initiative about nurse-patient limits. There are even more of where we are: a man wearing a Sox jacket, another wearing a Patriots sweatshirt; the accent that many people have (not that we speak with an accent, of course).

But no small part of what makes “City Hall” so satisfying is how the universal can emerge from the parochial — and let’s not kid ourselves, few places are as parochial as the self-proclaimed Hub of the Universe. Much of the documentary could be about any big city: traffic problems, building inspections, parking tickets, trash pickups, road repairs, a City Hall wedding, committee meetings — many, many meetings.

Mayor Marty Walsh at the Greater Boston Food Bank in "City Hall."Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc.

Over the years, Wiseman’s movies have gotten much longer. But the chaste style and barebones approach have little changed: no voice-over, no one identified. (Hey, isn’t that Ed Markey dancing at a Thanksgiving celebration at the Greater Boston Food Bank?) There’s no musical score. The camera rarely moves. One exception is that wedding, where it quite happily swings back and forth between the officiant and the two women getting married. The restrained editing makes for a movie in which long takes predominate.


Look closely, though, and notice how good “City Hall” looks — all honor to Wiseman’s longtime cinematographer, John Davey. Good isn’t the same as slick or glossy. Even so, the documentary is a pretty fair advertisement for Boston.

Wiseman, who lists himself in the end credits as “Director-Producer-Sound-Editor” — not bad for a guy who turns 91 in January — has long said that the editing makes or breaks his films. The editing of what we actually see may seem restrained, but considering all that gets left out the cutting as a whole is wildly radical. Wiseman shapes sequences (those committee meetings, for starters), and then shapes the way they form the larger structure of the film. “City Hall” has a slow, inexorable rhythm. Viewers who surrender to it will find it hypnotic.

The high point of the movie is one of those sequences. It starts at the 88-minute mark. Though it lasts 25 minutes, it feels like a few moments. It’s that moving, that engrossing.

It’s a Veterans Day event at Faneuil Hall. A retired nurse talks about working with hospitalized soldiers during World War II. A Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan talks about his uncle, killed in Italy during World War II, and a neighbor who fought on Okinawa. Another Iraq veteran describes being shot by a sniper and assuming he would die as he lay on the operating table. A Marine who fought in Vietnam — Roger Harris (who was such a powerful presence in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War”) — recalls his mother telling him he’d be OK over there, since he was special. “I’m putting special people in bags,” he replied.


A scene from the Veterans Day event in "City Hall."Courtesy of Zipporah Films, Inc.

Finally, Mayor Marty Walsh speaks. He talks about how his experience of alcoholism chimes with the sense of dislocation and stress that returning veterans must feel. He’s speaking extemporaneously. The comparison is in no way gratuitous or self-serving. This isn’t a politician talking to voters. It’s one human being who’s suffered talking to other human beings who’ve suffered even more.

The length of the sequence, and the simplicity with which Wiseman films it, testify to his faith in the material, which in turn is a faith in the viewer. That’s true of all Wiseman’s films, but what’s specific to “City Hall” is that it’s about faith in its subject, too: the system and those who make the system work.

“The people who work for the city work for you,” Walsh says to a group of seniors. “I may be the mayor, but I’m [also] a public employee,” he tells a meeting of Latino employees. “City Hall” isn’t a movie about comic-book superheroes. It’s about something nowhere near as rare but far more impressive: real-life heroes. From rodent inspectors to archivists to School Committee members, we see serious people of goodwill going about their business with goodwill and seriousness. Walsh, who effectively becomes the movie’s star, comes across as a truly decent man, maybe not the most eloquent guy, but that’s OK.


Decency, as much as process, defines “City Hall.” Decency and process, what could be duller, right? No, decency and process are life; and if you think life is dull, well, good luck to you. What Frederick Wiseman has been doing for all these years and in all these films is trying to make art of decency and process. In the good ones, he’s succeeded. “City Hall” is one of the very good ones.



Directed by Frederick Wiseman. Available for streaming via the Coolidge Corner Theater’s Virtual Screening Room at 242 minutes. Unrated.

Frederick Wiseman has made movies over six decades. “City Hall” brings him into a seventh. There have been so many documentaries, and of such high quality, it’s hard to pick highlights. Here’s one from each decade he’s worked in.

"Titicut Follies."ZIPPORAH FILMS

Titicut Follies (1967) Wiseman’s first film, about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, was so controversial it was banned from being shown in Massachusetts for 25 years. Yet what’s striking about it more than half a century later, even more than how harrowing it can be, is its profound humanity.

Canal Zone (1977) Wiseman’s best-known for making films about institutions. But he also has a long record of making them about places. “Canal Zone” looks at that little bit of US territory in Panama just before it went back to the Panamanians.

Missile (1988) Wiseman has made several documentaries about the military, including “Basic Training” (1971) and “Manoeuvre” (1979). “Missile” looks at how the officers who man Minuteman missile sites are trained.

La Comédie-Française ou L’amour joué (1996) If this celebration of the storied French theatrical company isn’t the most joyful of Wiseman’s documentaries, then “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet” (2009) is. In each, his love of performance, and all things French, shine through.

State Legislature (2009) Think of this look at a session of the Idaho State Legislature as a counterpart to “City Hall.” The political is the personal and the procedural both.

"National Gallery."Zipporah Films

National Gallery (2014) Wiseman’s overview of the great London museum takes in tourists, curators, conservators, administrators, janitors, and, most important of all, paintings.

All six films are available for streaming on Kanopy.

Mark Feeney can be reached at