“City Hall”: The Four and a Half Hour Experience That I Never Knew I Needed

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Delaney Davis

“City Hall” is the newest documentary film by director Frederick Wiseman.

Twenty four hours ago, if you would have told me that I would willingly sit down and watch four and a half hours of minimalist documentary footage about the city of Boston, I would have called you crazy. That is, before I had watched Frederick Wiseman’s newest documentary, “City Hall,” which is exactly that: over four and a half hours of fly-on-the-wall-style footage with no music, fancy editing, or commentary, following real people going about their daily lives in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. Based on the description and runtime alone, “City Hall” might sound boring or like it simply wouldn’t work. However, through the depth that documentary goes into its subject matter, “City Hall” managed to be a cinematic experience like I’ve never had before, and truly made me feel like a part of the city of Boston during its runtime.

So, what is the film about? Although “City Hall” is technically the title, I would consider it to be much more about the city of Boston and the people in it than just the building itself. The vast majority of the film consists of watching long takes of people doing various civic duties, such as discussing quarterly budgets or constructing buildings, without any real connection or overall plot. Even traditional documentary tropes, such as a narrator explaining the significance of what you’re watching, are completely left out for full immersion into the subject. At points, “City Hall” almost feels like people watching in a way. You’re just following citizens going about their everyday lives and doing everyday tasks. However, the way that Wiseman is able to make you care about what’s happening on-screen through his excellent cinematography and editing ability is truly incredible and a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker. Although most of what the film is about would usually be considered “boring,” “City Hall” makes the mundane tasks of everyday feel interesting with the way they’re filmed, especially with the effort the film makes to encapsulate everything. No stone feels left unturned by the end of this movie. I feel like I learned an incredible amount about how every little thing in Boston works, without the movie ever explicitly telling me anything; another tribute to Wiseman’s ability as an editor.

In addition to how in-depth the film goes with its topic, the cinematography in “City Hall” was also incredibly impressive to me. The entire film looks fantastic– especially considering most of it was shot on a handheld camera– and the sheer number of quality shots of buildings and nature were very impressive considering the scope of the film. At points, this movie begins to feel like a long walk through the city, allowing the viewer to admire nature and their surroundings, as well as get lost in the world around them. While there are plenty of exterior shots of buildings throughout the film, there are also a handful of complex visuals shown through interior shots of old Bostonian architecture. If you are at all interested in architecture or interior design, this is a great movie to watch if only for inspiration. All of the shots of people– from street performers to construction workers– were great as well and added even more depth to the already impressive cinematography. If there’s anything I can say about this movie, it’s that it is great eye candy. 

A particularly interesting aspect to me about “City Hall” is that issues I would likely critique in other films, such as a long length or lack of any real plot, almost feel intentional in this movie. As so much of the experience with this film is being truly immersed into its world, I really couldn’t imagine any of it being cut out. This film takes so much time in some scenes that they can feel grueling, but they’re long in a way that you feel rewarded for getting through them. In my opinion, the editing in this movie is purposefully minimal because it puts you into the perspective of the “characters” that you’re watching. The film is all about watching people, and by forcing you to watch someone live their life – at the natural speed of their life – it puts you into their shoes much more than if the film were to use a traditional editing style. As for the lack of any real plot, I feel like that’s what makes “City Hall” so unique. If the film were to steer itself in any one direction, I feel like it would lose a lot of the scope that makes it so impressive. The fact that the film is so all-encompassing is what makes it great, and without that it would be a totally different experience.

Seeing as the film’s length is the biggest detractor for people that I’ve talked to, I’d suggest breaking it up into chunks. I watched “City Hall” in one night, but took a break around the two hour and fifteen minute mark in order to stretch and get a snack and I feel like that made the movie much more digestible. There are also plenty of points throughout the film where you could easily pause and come back to it later, as almost all of the scenes have no connecting narrative that you need to remember. If you’re curious about this film’s style of filmmaking but don’t want to commit to four-and-a-half hours right away, Wiseman also has a handful of other, shorter documentaries that he’s made and directed (the closest to “City Hall” likely being “Hospital” (1970), which I loved) that are incredibly impressive cinematic feats as well. 

For as daunting of a movie as “City Hall” may seem, I can say without a doubt that it’s unlike any other film I have – or will ever – experience. If you’ve got a free Sunday afternoon, or just need a way to unwind in the crazy world we live in, I can’t imagine a better way to spend it than immersing yourself in the world of pre-pandemic Boston, Massachusetts, if only for a way to escape from reality for a few hours.

 ”City Hall” is available for streaming through FilmStreams @ home, found here.