What Good Government Looks Like

One name afloat in the ether of speculation surrounding Joe Biden’s future Cabinet is Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston. The post he is being mentioned for is Secretary of Labor, which happens to be a job that wants. Most Americans know who is, but not many have heard of Marty Walsh. If they have a free four and a half hours, however, they can learn a lot about him by watching Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, “City Hall.” The movie is timely in more ways than one.

Wiseman is ninety years old. May he continue to make his movies forever, for there is nothing quite like them. Still, if we think of “City Hall” as a (temporary) bookend to Wiseman’s career, there is an interesting symmetry—or asymmetry. Wiseman’s first documentary, “Titicut Follies,” from 1967, was banned by Massachusetts’s state courts for twenty-four years. It was shot at Bridgewater State Hospital, a state-run facility for the criminally insane about thirty miles south of Boston. Wiseman, using his now familiar no-voice-over, no-interview technique, put on display the inhumane treatment to which inmates were subjected. From the point of view of the content, the “Titicut Follies” lawsuit was a straightforward freedom-of-the-press case. The legal issue had to do with whether the privacy rights of the inmates had been invaded.

Wiseman, who was born in Boston (he now lives in Cambridge), has a degree from Yale Law School, and worked as a lawyer before becoming a filmmaker, likely saw the state’s lawsuit as a cynical attempt to conceal its own malfeasance from the public eye. Considering the manner in which patients at Bridgewater were being treated, their privacy rights would not have been of much concern to state officials. After an adverse judgment in the highest state court, Wiseman appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. The movie was finally released to the general public in 1992, and aired on PBS, a longtime supporter of Wiseman’s work.

When the state censors your movie, you obviously have struck the nerve that documentary filmmakers are searching for. But the film created expectations for Wiseman’s career that he has largely disappointed. He does not seem to aspire to produce exposés. What interests him are institutions, and institutions, given flesh and blood by the people who work in and interact with them, are the protagonists of his films. He does not uncover doings hidden from view because he films what anyone, given access, could see and hear: people going about their jobs. Sometimes (as with “Titicut Follies”) what you see and hear is disturbing, but most of the time it is unspectacular and even, well, boring.

The art in Wiseman’s films—and he insists that it is a mistake to confuse his movies with reality—is the art of making poetry out of the tedious and mundane. It almost seems that, the shorter the average attention span gets, the longer Wiseman’s movies become, but there is usually a single unremarkable image at their heart—the metaphor of the poem. In “At Berkeley,” from 2013, it is a man mowing grass. In “City Hall,” it is trash collection. The idea, I think, is that life is, at bottom, anarchic, a perpetual struggle for power and goods, for recognition and respect, for survival. The baseline function of the institutions that humans have invented, from schools and universities to city governments, public libraries, and arts groups, is to keep the lid on, to dissipate conflict by managing it—or, in the case of governments, by bureaucratizing it. There are problems? We have a process for that. Or: there is an agency that handles that. “City Hall” opens and closes with scenes of city workers answering calls to 311. A tree fell down, an animal is injured—problems individuals can’t cope with. The city responds. We’re here to restore your sense of balance. We keep the grass trimmed. We compact the trash and cart it away out of sight.

Government is composed of people, and Walsh is the movie’s focus. He is Irish Catholic—a virtual job requirement in Boston. Every mayor of Boston since 1930 has been Irish Catholic, with one exception: Walsh’s predecessor, Thomas (Mumbles) Menino, who served for twenty years and was probably the city’s most beloved politician. Menino was Italian-American. Walsh, as an Irish Catholic from Dorchester whose parents were immigrants and who started out in construction, evokes Boston’s stereotypical reputation for provincialism, and also its reputation for racism. But Dorchester today is one of the most multiethnic neighborhoods in the city, and Walsh (as Wiseman has chosen to show him) is all about diversity and inclusion. He is also obviously a gifted retail politician, a shake-every-hand type, even when, as is often portrayed in the film, he is speaking with only a dozen or so people in the room.

Boston today is majority minority; whites make up only about forty-seven per cent of the city’s population. The tensions inherent in that state of affairs are what city government tries to ameliorate. In “City Hall,” the point is underscored, with characteristic subtlety, by a sequence shot inside Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox—the last team in Major League Baseball to sign a Black player. The faces of the fans are overwhelmingly white. Having spent, to that point, an hour watching and listening to people with diverse complexions, it is a startling image, and a reminder that the Boston of Walsh’s youth has not disappeared.

“City Hall” is a valentine to Boston. The exteriors, always powerful in Wiseman’s films, are like picture postcards. Whatever Wiseman’s feelings about his home town after the “Titicut Follies” debacle, he does not appear to harbor a grudge. “City Hall” is a tribute to Walsh and the administration that he has put together. But it is also an anti-Trump movie. It reminds us that there are genuine public servants, individuals who have dedicated their careers to making life better for large numbers of people, and who seek no other reward. They get little honor today. Sneering at the notion of public service did not begin with Trump, though Trump has made it a principle of governance. The denigration of public service really began with Ronald Reagan, who invited Americans to regard government as a threat to their liberty and well-being.

Millions now subscribe to this anti-state ideology, even as they accept their Social Security checks, their veteran’s benefits, their Medicare coverage, and their food stamps—all services provided through the efforts of men and women who sit behind desks in some government office building, doing the boring work of keeping society from falling to pieces. It is moving to watch a film that gives those people their due.

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