The eponymous city hall of Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary is Boston’s, but near the beginning of the film comes a scene that calls back a moment from his magisterial 2015 project, In Jackson Heights. We see Marty Walsh, the genial mayor of Boston, attending a jubilant Red Sox World Series parade, an overwhelmingly white affair marshaled by a polite police presence. In Jackson Heights also features the celebration of a sporting victory, as patrons of a Colombian restaurant in Queens spill out onto the sidewalk and occasionally into the street after a soccer game. With his multiple cameras, Wiseman does his best to navigate the throngs of revelers, a job made harder by sudden, pointless, and wincingly violent arrests, all of people of color. The Boston police mosey along in their reflective jackets, ignoring the screams of the crowds; the NYPD positions snipers on nearby roofs. The contrast could not be starker.
Over his fifty-plus years of filmmaking, Wiseman (now ninety) has always surveyed his subjects from a critical distance, never explicitly commenting on what he shows us but rather letting viewers make their own assessments about what they’re presented with: whether they see bias, or police brutality, or spontaneous and touching moments of community, it’s up to them. His method is simple in conceit, so much so that he’s been lumped in with direct-cinema or cinéma vérité luminaries like D. A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles. Occasionally––and unjustly––he’s been characterized as being exclusively committed to confrontational exposés, but in a 2015 interview following the release of Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman succinctly summed up his considerably more nuanced approach: “[I’m] more interested in treating a subject to reflect its complexity.”
Elsewhere, he’s aptly described his method as “novelistic.” As both a fly on the wall and as his own editor, Wiseman subtly manipulates situations to give a wider scope to the events transpiring, from frequent cuts among multiple cameras to diegetic audio captured on location. In City Hall, as with practically every Wiseman documentary, there’s a literary bent to the way moments are catalogued, whether deadening bureaucratic meetings or the inspiring successes of vital public works.
Indeed, the relationship between governmental shortcomings and governmental success seems to be the very subject of City Hall—a dichotomy captured by Wiseman as he sweeps nearly the entirety of Boston. It’s a fertile subject for film, given Boston’s place in the pantheon of American history and current demographic reality as a majority-minority city. For every step made in addressing food insecurity, there’s a high-level transit cop complaining about the unhoused, rudely and unfoundedly positing that “30 percent probably aren’t even homeless.”