Frederick Wiseman’s New Doc “City Hall” Is Like Watching a Puzzle Being Put Together, and the Final Picture Is of a Stable Democracy

Boston runs on more than Dunkin' Donuts. This more than four-hour film dives deep into the inner workings of city government.

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City Hall

*** Celtics. Red Sox. Dunkin' Donuts. Sam Adams. Mark Wahlberg. City Hall. Wait, what? Yes, lots and lots of city hall. Boston culture runs on more than Dunkin' Donuts and slam dunks, and director Frederick Wiseman makes that very clear in City Hall. His 45th documentary in 53 years goes deep into the administration building that helps Boston function, a nine-story slab of concrete where the mayor works and the citizenry comes to petition. It's a fitting setting for Wiseman, whose movies are all about the way human-made institutions function—how people work in tandem to keep their society going. Or, as Mayor Martin J. Walsh puts it, "democracy in action." City Hall is sort of like watching a puzzle being put together in real time (it's over four hours!), only the pieces are people, meetings, ideas and industries, and the final picture is of a stable democracy. That sounds intimidating, but I could have watched another hour of people talking to each other in conference rooms. There is no plot or music, no Celtics or Dunkin' Donuts. In Wiseman's long and leisurely film, we get to see a different side of Boston. The side that makes a difference. NR. ASHER LUBERTO. Virtual Cinema.

American Dharma

** An eerie reversal kick-starts legendary documentarian Errol Morris' sitdown with Steve Bannon. In Morris' genre-altering The Fog of War (2003), he played the junior interlocutor to Robert McNamara and prodded the former U.S. defense secretary with his generation's burning Vietnam War grievances. In American Dharma, it's Bannon who professes to admire Morris. The Fog of War, the former Trump adviser says, was a life-changing look at how elite politicians betrayed everyday Americans. Hard to argue with that; it's just 95% of the conclusions drawn afterward that make Bannon an eminently troubling subject. After that curious moment of bonding, Morris and Bannon never really speak the same language again. Bannon rails against globalism but keeps all the hatred and white supremacy wrapped up in that discourse entirely euphemistic. Unfortunately, Morris keeps his rebuttals to a career minimum in American Dharma—bad timing, considering his subject is an active fire-starter, not a regretful, dried-out war hawk. That said, Morris depends on the audience to understand what they're watching. He's constructed a glimpse into Bannon's mind, channeled through the John Wayne and Gregory Peck movies that defined the proud nationalist's worldview. Some may call American Dharma platforming hate. Morris would probably call it knowing your enemy; he's still taking lessons from McNamara. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Topic.

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