City Hall

(Harold Becker, USA, 1996)


These days, even casual filmgoers have learnt to be suspicious of movies that credit half a dozen scriptwriters – with, sometimes, others uncredited.

There is a code worth knowing here. When City Hall credits “Paul Schrader & Nicholas Pileggi”, the ampersand signifies actual co-writing. But the next line – “and Bo Goldman” – indicates a subsequent re-write.

This script in fact began with co-producer Ken Lipper. City Hall is inspired by his experiences as deputy Mayor of New York. Pappas (Al Pacino) is mayor and Kevin (John Cusack) is his deputy. One fatal morning, a rogue cop and a drug dealer murder each other in the street, and a stray bullet also kills an innocent Afro-American child.

Kevin’s attempt at public relations damage control in the wake of this incident leads him onto the trail of a mystery. The chain of command preceding the cop’s action looks suspicious, and the gaps in the public record implicate figures including the elderly Judge Stern (Martin Landau).

The most intriguing aspect of the film is its focus on the minute processes and rituals of power brokering among men: the tightly controlled dissemination of information, the clandestine meetings and bargains, the role of personal and ethnic loyalties. I suspect this level is the Schrader-Pileggi contribution, judging by the nitty-gritty political knowledge evident in Casino (1995) which Pileggi co-wrote) and Patty Hearst (1988) which Schrader directed.

Schrader was initially slated to direct City Hall. One wonders what the re-jigging of the project by Goldman and director Harold Becker (Crazy For You [1986]) may have entailed. Many elements of the film seem extraneous or forced, as if to boost this chamber drama’s entertainment factor and somehow make it more palatable.

So we get a veritable father-son weepie happening between the two leading men, complete with Pappas reminiscing about the grand old days when he, like Kevin, had a “fire in his belly”. We get a muted love interest between Kevin and a feisty attorney (Bridget Fonda). And we get a paean to New York itself as the “city of luck”, of dreams realised and destinies derailed.

As a result, what could have been a tough social drama with an apocalyptic edge – in the mode of Sidney Lumet’s classic about police corruption, Prince of the City (1981) – becomes a wishy-washy, fairly pointless ode to “making it” (and sometimes losing it) in the Big Apple. It will come as a surprise to many viewers that the star of this story is not the enigmatic Pappas but Kevin, played by Cusack as a dreamy idealist and light-footed amateur detective.

Pacino is not nearly as impressive here as in Heat  (1995) or Carlito’s Way (1993). The delineation of his character is necessarily inhibited by the structure of the plot. We can only receive glimpses of Pappas’ public persona, essentially through Kevin’s eyes. A deeper, more intimate look at Pappas would spoil the central intrigue that is artfully hidden by the film for so long.

This leaves Pacino with little to do beyond his intense ruminations, behind closed Hall doors and in the back seats of cars, on the ethos of “Menschkeit” (roughly, “fellow feeling”), and his supposedly charismatic speeches before public gatherings and the media’s cameras. (The Greek aspect of this character is bizarrely fudged by the film.)

The central set-piece of City Hall shows Pappas’ oration at the funeral of the slain Afro-American child. It becomes a gospel-inspired frenzy of feel-good, call-and-response slogans. The scene – indicative of the film’s problems with finding the right pitch – is way over the top.

MORE Becker: Mercury Rising, Domestic Disturbance

© Adrian Martin May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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