' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: City Hall (1996)

Friday, August 31, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: City Hall (1996)

“City Hall” is one of those movies that begins with just a title card, no other credits. And while it’s pure speculation, I wonder if this was done to prevent people from immediately detecting the 1996 film’s likely overrding flaw – that is, a grand total of four screenwriters. This movie stinks to high heaven of re-writes. Ken Lipper wasn’t even a screenwriter at all, a former deputy mayor of NYC to Ed Koch, and no doubt responsible for most of the script’s shop talk. But there are also familiar names like Paul Schrader, Bo Goldman, and Nicholas Pileggi, each of whom, I assume, were brought in not simply to iron things out but ornament the stakes. As such, a dramatization of civics gives way to something like a murder mystery with a clumsy romantic subplot. If city politics are often hampered by too many cooks in the kitchen, well, perhaps “City Hall” going haywire is ultimately appropriate.

The film opens with the voiceover of Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), one evincing the feel of a political memoir, the kind where various “important” statements are in all caps or in snazzy colors to underline their “importance” – “no one should come here unless he’s willing to be lucky.” He is top assistant to the top dog, John Pappas (Al Pacino), the best mayor NYC ever had, per Calhoun, but whose tenure is put to the test when a little boy is inadvertently gunned down in a shootout between a cop and a mob lackey. It turns out the cop’s bullet got the kid, and it turns out the mob lackey should have been in the slammer, given probation for dubious reasons, which will inevitably wind their way back to Mayor Pappas to show that no hands are clean.

Marci Klein once remarked that in Alec Baldwin’s role as fictional NBC exec Jack Donaghy on Tina Fey’s masterful sitcom “30 Rock”, everything the actor was came out in the part. And in Pappas, everything Pacino is comes out in the part. If he is hammy in his inflections and mannerisms, he nevertheless projects a palpable sincerity in what he says and how he acts, even though he allows the mask to fall away on occasion so that we see not so much a metaphorical smirk underneath as a weary, resigned grin. When his character, against advice, speaks at the murdered boy’s funeral, Pacino orates to such grandiose but inspiring effect so that even if you shake your head you simultaneously feel him winning you over. But in the ensuing scene, Pacino conveys, simply in his air, the self-knowledge that what he just pulled was a political stunt. It is a deft trick to make you believe both; it is, making a 1996 specific reference, Clinton-esque.

His more menacing edges, meanwhile, while very much present are deliberately smoothed down by Pacino. In a scene with Frank Anselma (Danny Aiello), an old school Brooklyn political boss, where the two men convene in private at the opera, Pappas’s words are respectful yet laced with wicked intent. And for as close as they sit together, notice how infrequently Pacino has Pappas look at Anselma, a bit of physical business underlining his reminding Frank that “You’re only a boss, I’m the Mayor.”

Aiello shines in his own role, caring but cutting, glimpsed best in an early scene with Calhoun at a local diner where the two men and several other so and so’s go back and forth over the dueling prospects of a new subway stop in Brooklyn, which Frank wants, or a new bank exchange in Manhattan, which Calhoun’s bss wants. This sequence feels like a more urban version of John Sayles’s civic masterpiece “Sunshine State”, which might have been “City Hall’s” original intention, to show all the back-patting and ball-busting that goes into making a city go round.

But as if civics weren’t enough, Calhoun is forced into the role of amateur sleuth, trying to ferret out just why the mob lackey was given probation rather than sent away. It suggests noir but has none of the mood, winding up as just a rote quasi-procedural, and that’s to say nothing of Calhoun’s will they/won’t they relationship with Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda), an attorney for the late cop whose bullet killed the kid. Calhoun and Cogan’s scene at a diner in upstate New York when snow impedes their train could have been lifted directly from the Hallmark Channel’s “The Christmas Train.”

“City Hall” wants to make the little boy’s death count but the meaning gets lost amidst the plot machinations, and the plot machinations themselves become not so much convoluted as something of a slog. As such, “City Hall” slowly winds its way to an obvious conclusion, stifling any sense of what might have been agreeable fatalistic tragedy. Alas. Even then, however, moments of beauty emerge, like Anselmo’s denouement, a beautifully shot scene where the shadows cast through the conspicuous blinds of his back room cast him an emblematic fading light. And Pappas’s concluding monologue opposite Calhoun is magnificently delivered by Pacino, acknowledging political reality makes the optimal impossible even as he somehow leaves you still hoping for the best. I have no doubt that John Pappas is President in an alternate universe.

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