While the title of Frederick Wiseman’s monumental four-hour-and-32-minute documentary, “City Hall,” refers to the seven-story Brutalist building that has served as the nerve center of Boston city government since it opened in 1968, the film, which debuted on WGBH-TV on Dec. 22, is in essence about the people of Boston, including those who work for the city, as well as the nearly 700,000 constituents they serve.
Filmed over the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019, the documentary opens as workers in the titular building are seen fielding 311 city services calls that range from a report of a nonfunctioning traffic signal in West Roxbury to a call from a tenant alleging their landlord has shut off the utilities before the viewer sees Mayor Martin Walsh juggle myriad responsibilities, such as planning for the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series championship parade or talking about the urgency of climate resiliency with a roomful of developers.
A first-generation Irish American and lifelong Bostonian, Mayor Walsh discusses his and the city’s critical response to President Trump’s hardline policy on immigration, and while Mayor Walsh never invokes him by name, the White House and its policies cast a pall over the entirety of “City Hall.” Mayor Walsh’s enduring character, meanwhile, is on display throughout the film. In one revealing moment, Mayor Walsh stands outside City Hall in solidarity with local nurses in support of Massachusetts Ballot Question 1 in 2018, which would have limited the number of patients assigned to a single nurse, while sharing memories of the nurses who cared for him at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute when he was diagnosed with cancer at age 7.
During a Veteran’s Day Service, Mayor Walsh also candidly discusses his struggles with alcohol as a young adult, including once being ejected from a Bruins game for drunkenness, as well as his subsequent recovery. Elsewhere, city staffers are seen discussing the addiction-plagued intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard while presciently suggesting that a victory in the then-impending court case to reopen the Long Island Bridge could provide some much-needed relief for not only the afflicted, but also for residents of that neighborhood.
A wedding is ordained at City Hall, and in another scene, a new father makes a sympathetic pitch that successfully gets him out of two tickets he received after parking in front of a hydrant overnight. While much of the film is confined to City Hall itself, it also shows city employees in the field, including an Inspectional Services Department worker responding to a 71-year-old veteran whose home is infested by rats as he faces imminent eviction at the hands of his landlord – his own brother. “My spirit is broken,” says the forlorn man in the film’s most heart-wrenching scene that sheds light on the city’s marginalized population. Mike Ross, the former District 8 city councilor who ran against Walsh in 2013 to succeed Thomas M. Menino as the 54th mayor of Boston, makes a cameo as an attorney for the prospective operator of a Dorchester recreational cannabis dispensary in a segment that also underscores the frustration that many have felt with the byzantine process surrounding this burgeoning new industry in the city.
The city’s fraught racial history, especially the strife surrounding busing in the 1970s, also comes to the fore when Mayor Walsh, in anticipation of the NAACP’s national convention coming to Boston, is seen discussing how the city can promote itself while also acknowledging its sometimes polarized past. “It’s all about marketing,” Mayor Walsh says. “How we do we take the past and celebrate it and also understand where the problems are?” At the end of Wiseman’s absorbing opus, which leaves the viewer with a fully realized picture of just how much it takes to keep the City of Boston up and running, Mayor Walsh emerges as a humble public servant who, after his first five years in office, still appears genuinely honored to represent the people of his hometown. “I love my job,” he emphatically tells the crowd during his State of the City address in January of 2019 at Symphony Hall.
“Every day I get to go out into the neighborhoods to talk, listen and work with the people of Boston. In our five years together, we’ve made Boston a more compassionate, a more dynamic and a more democratic city. We’ve listened, we’ve learned and we’re leading.” As a documentary, “City Hall” is an engaging and fitting testament to Boston (as well as a flattering endorsement of its city government) in these times that ultimately justifies its daunting running time.