Hot topics don’t come hotter in this Whitewater election year than how to judge the character of those who govern. City Hall, a timely and smartly entertaining political drama starring Al Pacino as the fictional New York Mayor John Pappas, gnaws at the heart of the issue: Where does a public servant draw the line between cutting corners and corruption? A 6-year-old black boy, James Bone, is shot and killed in the cross fire between a cop and a drug dealer. The dealer, the nephew of a mob kingpin, should never have been paroled. An investigation is launched to uncover a web of duplicity stretching from the courts to the office of the mayor.
The plot sounds hokey and plays that way in the film’s trailer, which tries to sell a thoughtful meditation on politics as a thriller diller. Wrong move. City Hall is a film in which the good guys and the bad guys don’t come with convenient labels. It’s crucial to keep your antenna out as director Harold Becker (Sea of Love, Malice) prowls the corridors of power.
Pacino, at his spellbinding best, comes right at you. His mayor is a silver-tongued populist with ambitions toward the White House; Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) has the media savvy to help get him there. Kevin hero-worships his Greek mentor, who has the sass to tell a Japanese dignitary that New York is “the sushi capital of the world” and the charm to get a laugh out of it. The mayor is also pragmatic. It turns out the bullet in the kid came from the dealer’s gun instead of the cop’s. To the mayor, “that passes for good news.” Hizzoner has the balls to attend James’ funeral, where he is not welcome, and delivers an oration (“I am with you, little James”) that exhorts the congregation to rise up on the wings of this slain angel and rebuild the city. Pacino makes the speech outrageous and affecting, a political ploy that is nonetheless deeply felt.
Kevin buys into the mayor’s rap and what he views as harmless political expediency. It is Kevin who greases the press, points the mayor toward the right widows to kiss and pisses up the leg of politicians his boss can’t afford to offend. This lapsed Catholic from Louisiana, who is dissed as “shrimp boats” by the backroom cronies, is a rich role for Cusack, who is remarkably good. There is a glint of killer cunning in his performance, which holds its edge even when the script steers the character in the sappy direction of bruised innocence and a dumb flirtation with Bridget Fonda as Marybeth Cogan, a lawyer whose skirts ride up just enough to arouse his baser instincts.
What a shame that City Hall feels the need to sink to hackneyed romance when its political machinations are so compelling. It’s no accident that the film gets the details right. Ken Lipper, who came up with the story and the first draft of the script, served as deputy mayor to New York’s Ed Koch from 1983 to 1985. That three other writers — Nicholas Pileggi (GoodFellas), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Bo Goldman (Scent of a Woman) — with a New York bent also contributed to the screenplay adds to the sense of reality.
Cinematographer Michael Seresin, shooting on location in all five New York boroughs and inside the 183-year-old City Hall, puts you right in the picture. Veteran Gothamites may find traces of Koch, the late Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Gov. Mario Cuomo and former Rep. Vito Marcantonio in Pacino’s John Pappas. They may see some of Queens Borough President Donald R. Manes, who committed suicide in 1986 after being implicated in a political scandal, in Frank Anselmo, the Brooklyn borough leader played by Danny Aiello. And in Judge Walter Stern (Martin Landau), who paroled the drug dealer under pressure from those who influenced his nomination for the bench, they may hear echoes of the controversy about politicizing the judiciary that had former Mayors Koch and David Dinkins hurling insults at current Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and vice versa.
Of course, nobody outside New York would give a damn about all this if City Hall didn’t use its local authenticity to raise questions of universal relevance. In putting a human face on politics, the film shows how good intentions as well as bad can lead to bending the rules and breaking them. The mayor’s relationship with Frank — Aiello is perfect in the role — offers a telling lesson in the art of accommodation. The mayor needs a skyscraper built in Brooklyn to win jobs and votes. The Brooklyn boss needs the mayor to build a subway stop to please his real-estate pals and mobster Paul Zappati, played by Anthony Franciosa in a welcome return to the screen. Mayor and boss hook up in the lobby of a Broadway theater showing Carousel — Frank is a softie for the tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein — and the talk is tough: “You’re only a boss, Frank. I’m the fucking mayor. Mayors rule.” In fact, both get what they want. The mayor tells Kevin it has to do with menschkeit, a Yiddish word he picked up from Chief of Staff Abe Goodman (the invaluable David Paymer). It’s about “honor, character, something between men … the space between a handshake.” And power. “Because what good are you to the people without it?” asks the mayor. Kevin sees it as a horseshit excuse for clubhouse deals that rub out the ethical line a politician is not supposed to cross even for the worthiest cause. Deals can get people killed; this time it was a 6-year-old child.
In exposing a system that encourages politicians and voters alike to run moral caution lights, this tale of a dishonored mayor and his disillusioned boy lays down a challenge for audiences. It suggests that the true test of character comes in keeping a vigil over that metaphoric space between a handshake. Naive? What if it is? The movie flies hearteningly in the face of cheap political cynicism: It says you can fight City Hall and win.