Frederick Wiseman’s ‘City Hall’: Let us now praise democracy

Director Frederick Wiseman has gifted us with a movie for our times. City Hall is all about democracy—how it works, who does it, and why it is so vital. In a time of authoritarian challenges, it could not be more important.

Wiseman’s documentary is a brilliant mosaic. He pieces together the work of civil servants in the City of Boston: public meetings, official functions, strategy sessions, field work. A civics lesson in action unfolds as we view police, building inspectors, teachers, garbage collectors, planners, parking enforcers, senior service assistants.

City staff and housing advocates strategize to cope with draconian Trump Administration rules which make it almost impossible to bring discrimination complaints. Service workers not only give public and staff instructions on how to cook but use the cooking to promote diversity and civic pride. Justices of the Peace conduct marriages. Emergency services and police deploy to protect lives and property.

Through it all Mayor Marty Walsh draws the threads of service together, explaining and administering public functions. Walsh oversees the budget and disperses the staff. He bestrides and engages. As he weaves the work and navigates complex political and social minefields, he emerges as a unifier, a competent Everyman if not a visionary. We learn his complex life story, unionist, cancer survivor, and recovering alcoholic. Walsh is certainly not perfect, securing resources through accommodation to corporate interests, for example. But he seems to have made his administration serve the needs of the moment.

City Hall also gets out into the streets between sequences of workers doing their jobs. We are shown a sampling of neighborhoods and buildings which reflect Boston and America’s dynamism. It’s a tapestry which in its demands and diversity is daunting, a safety net always threatening to unravel. But in its constant reweaving, it strengthens the savers as well as the saved.

Neither the buildings nor the people are always beautiful and charming. The brutalist architecture of Boston City Hall itself has always been controversial, as one source observes, subject to nearly universal condemnation as one of the world’s ugliest buildings. But its utility is beyond question.

Wiseman knows a bit about utility. The award-winning director is now 90 years old. In his 45 films, he has spooled an institutional history of this country. He uses no narrative, letting the characters tell their story through situations and action. Dramatic structure is achieved through editing. In this fashion, he conveys a naturalistic story of institutions. With City Hall, Wiseman has painted a portrait of what makes America work, like his film an unfinished masterpiece.

PBS will present the broadcast premiere of Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall on Tues., Dec. 22, 8:00 p.m.-12:00. (check local listings). The film will also stream simultaneously on and the PBS Video App. The trailer can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!