“All good things flow from the city,” observes “City Hall’s” fictional mayor of New York. However, this is just a hypothetical observation, based on an idealized concept of how a township should operate. His modern metropolis is a jungle where disease, murder and other forms of human and environmental corruption run rampant. Though the picture desires to tell the truth, it certainly doesn’t stint on fun. Structured as a whodunit, the credible suspects are a colorful rogue’s gallery who all bear some degree of guilt. While the task of keeping pace with the multilayered plot can be daunting, its breathless storytelling quality, charismatic cast and technical sheen should generate strong box office returns domestically and in upscale international locales.
The challenge of distilling what plagues the urban landscape (and those who seek to reverse the process) into a thoughtful, entertaining movie is unquestionably Faustian. “City Hall” comes awfully close to delivering the goods within a fast-paced thriller framework. At its best, the picture conveys the visceral energy of city politics, in which problem-solving is more common than air. The dilemma for the film is that there are no happy endings, just reelection promises that have as much substance as ether.
Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) believes men in power can make a difference. The transplanted Louisiana boy is the deputy mayor who views Gotham as a place where one should be prepared and willing to be lucky. He reveres his boss, John Pappas (Al Pacino), a passionate and fearless man of the people.
Calhoun’s naif-like quality is put to the test when an off-duty cop winds up in a fatal shoot-out with a drug dealer who then takes a 6-year-old black boy as a victim. The policeman’s breach of conduct evolves into far more than an issue of race and pension benefits. As the onionskin of the plot is peeled away, the net of implicated parties fans out into the legal system, organized crime and municipal government.
The incident is an effective narrative thread on which to hang a lot of issues and observations. The script, credited to such heavyweights as Bo Goldman , Nicholas Pileggi and Paul Schrader (Frank Pierson worked uncredited), derives from a story by producer Ken Lipper, New York deputy mayor under Ed Koch. One can sense conflicting and contrasting perspectives, but most of its ambivalence works to the story’s advantage.
On one level, it’s about unraveling the cat’s cradle of culpability. But the more fundamental explorations address how the political machine operates as well as the feasibility of being effective and unsullied in elected office.
At the core of this contemporary Greek tragedy is Pacino’s Pappas, the latter-day Greek mayor. It’s a flamboyant interpretation with just the prescribed dosage of self-aware showmanship. He speaks at the dead boy’s funeral because “it’s right,” he says. But it’s also a political opportunity to win over a hostile audience, and his brilliant, heartfelt sermon is testament to why he’s the right man for such an onerous job.
The support cast is dotted with some tasty turns, including a brief glimpse of Koch as a TV commentator. Martin Landau brings poignancy to an honest judge brought down by human frailty, and David Paymer is ideal as an administration “fixer.” Danny Aiello especially stands out as a powerful councilman with the knack for using power and personality to get what he wants and the poise to accept setbacks as part of the political equation.
Cusack’s character is the film’s conscience. He’s the one with the ideals and he’s the one who witnesses the fatal flaws in people and systems that undo the process. His performance is the invisible glue that holds “City Hall” together. However, the prospect of romance on the job with attorney Bridget Fonda is one carrot that never materializes. Fonda’s role isn’t much more than a plot convenience.
Director Harold Becker conveys a gleeful relish for the material, turning Manhattan into a playground where his mayor rules. There’s a giddy zing to Michael Seresin’s camerawork and an intoxicating rhythm to the editing and Jerry Goldsmith’s score. New York has rarely seemed so alluring.
The final twist of “City Hall” is a little too pat and convenient. It’s unclear whether the filmmakers’ sentiments are pro or con the mayor or just anti-Establishment. Mercifully, it’s not belabored and, expedience aside, Pappas gets one vote from this precinct for political acumen and bravura.