Playing Politics Movie review: Al Pacino is unimpeachable as a slick mayor, but as far as political intrigue goes, 'City Hall' doesn't fight the good fight.

February 16, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

You can fight "City Hall." It's easy. Just don't go.

The Al Pacino movie is long on histrionics, rich in detail, provocative in theme, but ultimately comes to nothing because it doesn't make its argument with enough rigor. It concedes too early.

Pacino plays His Honor John Pappas, mayor of the great, shaggy, ungovernable and pathological city 200-odd miles to the Northeast, a gifted politician who is equal parts Mario Cuomo (the fabled eloquence), Fiorello LaGuardia (the squawky feistiness) and John Lindsay (the great hair). And he loves being mayor.

"City Hall" is at its best in a rollicking first hour that essentially documents how governance works (or attempts to work) at the complex municipal level, in a barter economy where the currency of exchange includes favors, patronage, jobs, respect, maybe even a little moolah. But mostly it's the joy of dealing, beloved not only to the politicos of New York but Rome and Moscow and Singapore and Baltimore as well. It's the game, the culture, the cigars, the speeches, the after-hours neat shots of bourbon, the sense of counting. Director Harold Becker, working from a script that was partially written by former New York deputy mayor Ken Lipper, really brings this to life.

Pacino is in great form: He barks, he seethes, he bugs out his eyes, he knows which butts to kiss and which to kick, which backs to pat and which to stab. He's a totally feral, cunning urban political rodent, a rat with a conscience but not too much of one. As reportage on what it must be like to be that far inside, "City Hall" is quite interesting, particularly since Rudy Guiliani threw the actual building open to the filmmakers, so the sense of physical verisimilitude is very high.

Structurally, the movie chronicles the metastasis of an ethical cancer. One tragic day, a cop recklessly intercepts a drug dealer on the streets; guns are pulled, shots exchanged, both men die, but in the cross-fire, so does an angelic 6-year-old boy. It then swiftly turns out that the dealer, nephew of a powerful Mafiosi, had been the recipient a few weeks earlier of a surprisingly tender mercy from the probation board, and had gotten out of jail free from a deeply sympathetic judge after a violent crime. Was there political influence at play here?

The papers and the TV hairdos go nuts, of course, trying to trace the influence from the original probation report up through the levels of municipal government to see who made the arrangements. But the reporters are always a step behind Our Heroes, deputy mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), and Policeman's Benevolent Association attorney Marybeth Cogan

(Bridget Fonda).

The two of them take us out of City Hall (the place) on a kind of Hardy Boys detective adventure which leads to a revered judge (Martin Landau), a powerful elected official (Danny Aiello) and through various highways and byways of the body politic and the corpse bureaucratic. They're the ones who really penetrate the conspiracy, and it gets dicey in movie ways when people start dying.

Still, as a dramatic device, this turns out not to be a great idea. Fonda, stiffly pretty, is no real actress; she barely registers and when she does, she seems like a child along for the ride. Cusack, for some reason essaying a Louisiana accent in every third scene, does register, but he ultimately becomes an extremely rigid and problematical presence himself.

There's an argument here, under the melodramatic pyrotechnics. And that is the classic argument of the political process, one that's being played out 40 miles to our south, in another great, ungovernable city. It's being played out in this city and in every city. It's the struggle between idealism and practicality, the fight over how to help the largest number of people, and the movie, for all its delusions of grandeur, ultimately comes down on the side of idealism in a way that feels more like zealotry than anything else.

The young people are conceded all moral authority to judge and find their elders wanting, even as they track the scandal to its highest level. They essentially become judge and jury and they have no spirit of temperance and, apparently, no true understanding of the principal of compromise. If politics is the art of the possible, they don't get it; they think it's the art of the pure, and when they find purity stained, they destroy, leaving . . . well, essentially, leaving nothing, except their own sense of moral grandeur.

L "City Hall" has plenty of smarts; it just lacks real wisdom.

"City Hall"

Starring Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda and Danny Aiello

Directed by Harold Becker

Released by Castle Rock

Rated R (coarse language, some violence)

Sun score: ** 1/2

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