City Hall: A Valentine to Public Service

In a PBS interview with Jim Lehrer, Aaron Sorkin described The West Wing as “a kind of valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions.” Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, City Hall, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last Monday, is also a valentine to public service that celebrates city government, at least as it is practiced in Boston.

Wiseman is famous for making lengthy documentaries about institutions that simply observe what is happening without resorting to a narrative arc, narration, or interviews. City Hall runs for 4 ½ hours and provides a window on many of the things that happen in city government in Boston in fall 2018 and winter 2019, some in the architecturally Brutalist city hall itself, others throughout the city. If what is happening interests you, you will watch with rapt attention. I did.

If there is a protagonist in City Hall it is incumbent (Democratic) Mayor Marty Walsh. We see Walsh in meetings both with aides and with the public throughout the movie. We see him addressing business leaders about increasing the harbour’s resilience, listening to veterans at Faneuil Hall on November 11, observing Thanksgiving Day at Goodwill Industries, and celebrating the Red Sox 2018 World Series Championship. Walsh is an Irish Catholic, like all but one of Boston’s mayors for over a century. But he has a strong commitment to diversity, having been elected with the support of a multi-ethic coalition, and he is running an administration that is seriously attempting to enhance opportunity for minorities.

To the extent the film has a narrative arc, it concludes with Walsh’s 2019 “state of the city” address at Symphony Hall in which he celebrates Boston’s economic success and proclaims his administration’s commitment to diversity and social justice.

But the film isn’t all about Marty, by any means. The second major theme is that we see numerous instances of public servants helping people in need. They include the eviction prevention task force, a task force on access for people with disabilities, a program providing a continuum of care for young people addicted to opioids, another task force on economic advancement for Latinx women, an economic development adviser working with a ethnically-focused grocery store, and a housing inspector helping an elderly man deal with an infestation of rats in his apartment. We even see two citizens appealing parking tickets. Spoiler alert: both tickets are withdrawn.

Many of these and other interactions involve public meetings. Even when there are disagreements, people express their viewpoints with civility. I wonder if the presence of the camera in the room is influencing behaviour.

Does the movie have a political viewpoint? Definitely. One of Ronald Reagan’s famous aphorisms was “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” City Hall is about people from the government doing just that; thus the film stands in opposition to the Republican Party’s free market fundamentalism for the last forty years. Often Walsh and others discuss how the Trump Administration is making their work more difficult. In an interview for TIFF, Frederick Wiseman declares “City Hall becomes an anti-Trump film because the mayor and the people who work for him believe in democratic norms. They represent everything Donald Trump doesn’t stand for.”

Wiseman’s standard practice is to shoot 100 hours and choose 4. Thus there are topics that I think deserve more attention. These include policing, about which there are only a few snippets, and the libraries, which are entirely absent. (In Toronto the public libraries serve a diverse population of limited means, which is consistent with Wiseman’s theme. I imagine the situation in Boston is similar.)

Watching City Hall from Toronto, I wonder how our services compare with Boston’s. Is our 3-1-1 service as comprehensive as theirs? Boston’s garbage collection involves workers throwing bags into garbage trucks and the trucks also accepting and crushing large items such as mattresses and armoires. In Toronto, garbage and recyclables must be placed in bins that the trucks lift mechanically, and large items are collected separately. How do the systems compare in terms of cost, efficiency, and recycling?

If you are interested in public service and public services City Hall is well worth the investment of 4 ½ hours. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.


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