Friday, February 20, 2009

A Tarnished Palace

In this age of superlatives, a work of art that is merely good instead of great can seem like a near failure. Like a bronze medalist in a track meet or honorable mention at a bake-off, City Hall (1996) both elates and disappoints. It redeems itself in its treatment of grand, human themes, from loss of innocence to lost potential, in a political fable which, I speculate, might also represent the filmmaker's intent to illuminate the still-baffling story of a contemporary American politician.

Al Pacino, as Mayor John Pappas of New York, carries the film. His oratory soars to astounding heights when addressing a deeply skeptical African-American congregation, mourning a child of the community caught in the crossfire of a notorious shooting. Pappas decries the violence that has taken root in his city and implores the parishioners, in rising, climactic tones, to join him in civic participation "until this city...your city...our city...his a palace again!"

This superlative scene is supported by several understated, well-acted and directed moments. Immediately after the memorial service, Pappas reflects silently in the mayor's car, as John Cusack's young Deputy Mayor Calhoun waits for the proper moment to break in with the day's agenda. Finally, Pappas quietly says, "Terrible thing to lose a child." That's the moment; they share a sigh and proceed anew. In another quotable scene, Mayor Pappas reflects on the comprehensive responsibility of the office: "If a sparrow dies in Central Park, I feel it."

Would that the rest of City Hall lived up to Pacino's performance. John Cusack, likable in the portrayal of an unlikely, Louisiana-raised political transplant to New York, can't quite locate a southern accent with confidence. His character's credibility is burdened by an inept subplot -- or is it the main plot? -- in which the Deputy Mayor of New York City practically assumes the role of an action figure, chasing gangsters by boat one night and traveling by train upstate on another occasion -- all the way to Buffalo, round trip! -- to track down a lead. (At a minimum, one would think his absence from his office duties might be noticed.) Danny Aiello's affable Brooklyn politician, under the thumb of Tony Franciosa's menacing mobster, is more sharply defined, and Bridget Fonda animates the plot by getting in Cusack's face and under his skin. Still, as with Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Martin Sheen in The West Wing, we can't wait for Pacino to return to the screen.

Ultimately, City Hall is a morality tale as well as a portrait of New York City as a tarnished but beloved metropolis. Without Pacino's Mayor Pappas as anchor and focus, however, it would just be an extended, long-winded episode of Law and Order -- without the crisp editing and snappy titles.

With Pacino in the lead, it assumes the status of parable -- and perhaps even a political explication. For years I have wondered about former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's decision not to run for President, following his rise to national prominence occasioned by his brilliant 1984 convention speech. A gifted orator of his era, perhaps the last progressive Democrat to inspire the liberal-to-moderate populace in the way that Barack Obama has in this current era, Cuomo was derided by critics as the "Hamlet of Albany" for waffling on the decision to run, ultimately withdrawing from contention. Is City Hall wholly fictional in its origins, or could it be a cloaked tale of a promising national political career, derailed through events and associations never revealed?

As Calhoun laments in a closing scene with Pappas, after the fictional mayor's political downfall becomes inevitable: "The things you could have done."


  1. A lot of people admired Cuomo, but we gorillas always had a soft spot for Walter Mondale. The dull human is a safe human.

  2. I wouldn't have thought you simians would care for a politician without a peel.



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