«What if the great American novelist doesn’t write novels?» asked the title of a recent NY Times profile of legendary documentarian/US national treasure Frederick Wiseman. The piece was occasioned by the nonagenarian’s latest (45th!) masterwork City Hall, a mesmerizing opus – currently airing on PBS in the States – that unfolds over an addictive four-and-a-half-plus hours.
And as the film’s own title plainly implies, City Hall is an intricate study of on-the-ground government, in this case, that of the filmmaker’s hometown of Boston, where for the past six years Mayor Marty Walsh has been running the show (and I do mean show, as Wiseman’s theater directing background is forever evident in his framing of the world). In addition to Wiseman capturing Walsh’s daily humble routine, be it addressing his struggle with alcoholism at a veterans’ meeting or serving gravy to disabled workers at a Goodwill dinner (a stark contrast to President Trump’s busy schedule of bitching and moaning between rounds of golf), he also puts the «essential» and under-appreciated cogs in the machine front and center. Which culminates in something truly extraordinary – a cinematic celebration of bureaucracy at its best. Sure, democracy may be broken in DC, but at the local level, the myriad of public servants are certainly doing right by the rest of us.
City Hall is an intricate study of on-the-ground government
All of which is to say that for me City Hall managed to rebuild in four hours what the past four years had utterly destroyed – a sense of pride in my country. Indeed, Wiseman’s doc is a terrific distillation and redemption of American «exceptionalism,» a much-needed reminder that for its many faults, the United States is still the only country in the world in which people of every color and ethnicity living on its soil can be equally seen as «American.» Like the film’s director, the Boston-born son of (Jewish) immigrants, Mayor Walsh is similarly the Boston-born son of (Irish) immigrants – i.e., straight white men hailing from families once considered notches below white in our entrenched . . .
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