In City Hall, a panoramic drama about New York politics and corruption, men in expensive suits — good men and bad men — sit and whisper to each other about deals and favors and money. The power plays and intrigues have the hushed intimacy of the courtship rituals in Sense and Sensibility, and the movie is seductive as it slowly unfolds. How sad, then, that it unfolds to reveal … nothing much we don’t already know. City Hall is smart and eloquent, yet aside from the incident that sets the plot in motion, it has no power. It’s neither steak nor sizzle.
Somewhere in Brooklyn, a policeman and drug dealer get into a brief shoot-out. One of the stray bullets kills a six-year-old black boy standing nearby. Immediately, the bombastic mayor, John Pappas (Al Pacino), and Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) leap into damage control. This tragedy, spring-loaded with racial tension, threatens the mayor’s plans to build a bank. To establish himself as a mayor who cares, Pappas surrounds himself with distinguished members of the black community, then attends the boy’s funeral and makes an overwrought speech over the casket. Meanwhile, the young and idealistic Calhoun digs into the origins of the shooting. We assume he’ll uncover a trail of corruption leading back to Pappas — otherwise the movie has little point — and we’re not wrong.
City Hall is packed with top-drawer actors (Bridget Fonda, Martin Landau, Danny Aiello, David Paymer), but the director, Harold Becker, only has eyes for Pacino and Cusack. They reward him with rich performances; Cusack shines in his first real adult role, and Pacino does some amazing things with his voice (he doesn’t resort, as he did in Heat, to shouting when he doesn’t know what else to do). The movie promises to be a complex tour of the corridors of power, and sometimes it succeeds, but anyone who follows politics with any attention at all will shrug at most of it. The heart of City Hall is the gray-haired story of the fresh-faced idealist disillusioned by his not-entirely-spotless mentor.
Maybe it had to be that way. The script, initiated by former deputy mayor (under Ed Koch) Ken Lipper, was handed off to Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), then to Nicholas Pileggi (Casino), then to Bo Goldman (Scent of a Woman). Too many cooks may have spoiled this broth, heated over a very low flame by director Becker (Sea of Love). Past masters like Coppola, Welles, and Oliver Stone (in Nixon) have probed the anatomy of power in all its juiciness and ugliness. Becker is a solid craftsman who, unlike the populist Pappas, has no fire in his belly. The work is intelligent, conscientious, and bland.
By the end, the pivotal shooting just seems like a random, abstract incident — a mere springboard for an ambitious but unsatisfying meditation on the morality of power. We hear far more from Pappas’ spin doctors than we do from the slain boy¹s grieving father, who gets in one word of dialogue. Both convoluted and abbreviated, City Hall plays a losing game: Harold Becker tries to say in two hours what it took Coppola all three Godfather movies to say.