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City Hall Movie Review

City Hall (1996)

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Written by: Ken Lipper and Paul Schrader & Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman
Directed by: Harold Becker
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, David Paymer, Richard Schiff, Martin Landau
Rated: R
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The accidental shooting of a boy in New York leads to an investigation by the Deputy Mayor, and unexpectedly far-reaching consequences.

I like the idea for the story so much, but I wish I liked the results more. This is a coverup that becomes a scandal. We see the dirty side of politics, though that implies there’s a clean side. That might be the problem, it’s black and white in this movie. Operating in the gray can be the way things get done despite misgivings, but the movie doesn’t consider that as much as I’d like. I wish this was more of a nuanced consideration. I don’t want the movie to condone, but provide more of an argument as to why it happens. That could give Pacino more to do in this movie. He’s underutilized as we follow Cusack’s morally correct character.
It depends.

A speech from mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) is cut short when a shootout between a cop and a dealer breaks out and a child is shot. This quickly becomes a coverup even if we’re not sure why exactly yet.  The other question is why was this dealer out on a parole? He shouldn’t have been.

Al Pacino plays John Pappas

This is a game of politics and everything is intertwined. Deputy mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) investigates what happened, quickly sensing something is going on when this dealer got out on parole due to strings being pulled. This coverup keeps getting bigger while everyone claims they aren’t involved. Brooklyn politician Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello) and a judge seem to be at the center of it as Kevin tries to piece it together. All of these people seem to be loosely linked.

Pacino is incredibly charismatic as the mayor and the speech he gives at the kid’s funeral is something else, more of a sermon. You have to wonder if all his talk about doing the right thing is what’s right in the public eye, what’s right in getting his agenda done, or what’s right in his attempt to stay mayor.

Bridget Fonda, John Cusack play Marybeth Cogan, Kevin Calhoun

This is a slow burn and it also feels very 90s. I like the story, but we’re dancing around the point. Politics is a dirty game. Part of the issue is that Calhoun is a crusading knight urging Pappas to do the right thing as they both have their sights on Washington D.C. Calhoun just seems too squeaky clean. He’s chided throughout the movie for being new to New York and not being from New York. If he was operating in the gray just a little bit like everyone else, that would give this story a boost. As it is, this comes off a bit preachy. I really wish Calhoun had a stake in this coverup and he was fighting his conscious over what to do. By the time this coverup reaches the scale where it engulfs Calhoun, he doesn’t even consider what he could gain by participating. That twist could have been a lot of fun for the movie. Calhoun saw Pappas as his ticket to better things. Why did he never consider turning a blind eye if that’s true. Pappas is mayor today and could be even bigger tomorrow. What’s ‘right’ can sometimes be a matter of perspective.

The conclusion is too cut and dry. Calhoun bemoans what could have been, but there’s a lot that could still be if only Calhoun was a more interesting character. That’s where this movie fails. It’s a swirling story of corruption, but it’s almost too big. The movie flirts with the idea that the only way to get ahead in politics is to play dirty, but that’s more of a throwaway thought at the end. I wish the movie explored that idea.

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