Frederick Wiseman, who persists in making some of the most sophisticated and effective documentaries in the United States even as he enters his 90s,* is well known for his films all being about "institutions": he goes so a specific kind of place (a hospital, a museum, a cabaret), plops his camera down, sits behind it, and watches. And after watching to the tune of dozens and dozens of hours of footage of that institution and the people connected to it going about their business - the more quotidian the better - he shapes it into a story about whatever particular aspect of the place seems most important to him, and gives the resultant film a blunt, descriptive title that is, often as not, just the noun describing the place.

This is all entirely true, but just focusing on the institutions themselves suggests that Wiseman has some kind of checklist of all the kinds of places you could make a documentary, and once he has finished a complete cinematic portrait of the United States, he will retire. And maybe he even does. But the institutions aren't chosen entirely at random; glancing over Wizeman's career of more than half a century, he tends to move in cycles, where several films in a row seem to tackle similar topics from different angles. And his newest film, City Hall, feels very much like the grand climax to just such a cycle: it is the movie tying his three last films together in one extraordinary, epic tale, one that at 272 minutes is the second-longest project of a career that, especially recently, has tended towards rather indulgent running times. 2015's In Jackson Heights, a meandering tour of the titular Queens, New York neighborhood that examines the collision, productive and otherwise, between people and groups in the United States' most racially and culturally diverse community. 2017's Ex Libris - The New York Public Library is about a branch of the city's government trying to cope with attending to all the needs of different people who need it to do sometimes very different things. 2018's Monrovia, Indiana is about an entire city government, albeit of a very small city. City Hall brings all of those together: how a city government deals with the needs of a racially diverse population, at a scale rather larger than Monrovia; it is, in fact, set in the halls of power of Boston, Massachusetts, Wiseman's own birthplace, and specifically on what happens in the work life of Mayor Marty Walsh in the last few months of 2018 and the first few months of 2019.

Wiseman's films, as he is the first to point out, are not neutral reportage, but deliberately sculpted to say something about the society in which they're set; they are cultural commentary, not slices of life. Even so, he has rarely made a film as directly and explicitly about politics as City Hall basically has to be, given its subject matter. Perhaps to act as a counterbalance, then, the film is much less direct in the message it wants us to take away, if indeed it has a message that it wants us to take away. It seems at least as plausible that the film wants to be a mirror, not of society, but of the viewer: what do we think is the proper role of a city government? Because over the course of the film's imposing length, it presents a lot of possibilities. On the one hand, we get to see a great deal of footage of Walsh or other officials saying the respectable words about the need for a liberal intersectional approach to governance, but these words all have a distinctly hollow tang, especially when they're contrasted - as they are, sometimes directly in adjacent scenes, sometimes across a span of an hour - with scenes of Boston's citizens doing what they can to communicate the degree to which the city is failing their needs, and all the nice idealist vocabulary words don't mean fuck-all without concrete actions behind them.

On the other hand, the film persuasively depicts the amount of decision-making and negotiating that needs to go into keep a city with as many moving parts as Boston, and as many different citizens who have completely different needs that they are all confident are the issue that the city needs to address if it is going to live up to its stated progressive ideals as being so crushing that the fact that city exists and functions at all is somewhat impressive. It's not unlike the tension bubbling through Wiseman's At Berkeley, in which the director sympathises openly with the people who see the obvious solutions to obvious problems, while identifying intellectually with the bureaucrats who are aware of the impossibility, on multiple levels, of snapping their fingers and making those solutions happen. And this gets us to the real heart and soul of City Hall: while it wants to get us wondering about what, pray tell, City Hall is to do about this fallen world, it really wants us to watch at the vast complexity of how City Hall does anything, and because this is a Frederick Wiseman film, that can only mean one thing: meetings.

Wiseman's films are great at meetings; I have had the experience of walking out of one of them and commiserating with a fellow fan that one of his films had so many opportunities for meetings, and passed most of them up (this was, I think, 2009's La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet). Well, he sure as hell doesn't pass them up in City Hall. Marty Walsh's entire job seems to be meetings, based on the film; meetings with other members of the government, meetings with special interest groups, meetings with individual citizens. And in these meetings, depicted at great length, Wiseman explores as I have never seen him explore before the soul of the mechanisms by which institutions operate: the droning, slow-moving clash of personalities who all think they are the only smart person in a room, and wish to orate their wisdom in front of everybody else. The sheer unimaginable scale of the issues facing a city of Boston's size becomes visible through the quantity of meetings, and quantity of words during those meetings, it takes to address even the most glancing, surface aspect of those issues.

Is this an indictment of the grinding bureaucratic hold-ups that make all of our lives duller? A celebration of the fact that there are people patient enough to navigate this system rather than let everything collapse into anarchy? If Wiseman has an opinion, he's not saying. City Hall is presenting rather than editioralising, simply showing us what the hell happens and why it takes so long for any decision to get made, laying out all the variables that go into those decisions, and judiciously handing out reaction shots to us to demonstrate the tensed-up disagreements (or even worse the tensed-up agreements that take several minutes to express) ready to erupt. I do not suppose it is possible to explain how gripping and exciting this is while you're watching it, how consequential and high-stakes it is. But that is the Wiseman touch.

That being said, as much as City Hall indulged my passion for Wiseman meeting scenes, it's an imperfect film. That massive 4.5-hour running time doesn't come without some dead weight, including the first time I have ever encountered, in a Wiseman film, an entire sequence that I don't think works: it's a very, very long look at what I presume, based on the time frame, to be the city's official Veterans Day celebration, in which several veterans talk about their experiences or their relatives' experiences, ending with Walsh praising them all. If this has anything to do with the rest of the movie, I cannot begin to see the link, and for once, Wiseman gives us several speakers at length, rather than his typical pattern of letting one person going on for several minutes, or giving several people little soundbites. It's only one scene in the grand scheme of things, but at the scale we're talking here, that one scene is the length of a television episode. And it's not the only place where the film lets a moment linger beyond the point that it seems to be telling us anything new.

Still, if the price we pay for something that lives up to such an implacable, all-encompassing title as City Hall is some airless dead weight, which like its muted pessimism that anything will ever get better, and its obsession with the minutiae of problems, are all part of the function of this city hall, or many others. So call it form following content, if you like. Whatever the case, it's a bold and comprehensive vision of the how and what of city government, tempered with just enough cynicism to seem like a thoughtful analysis and not a bit of bland social studies homework, and it's Wiseman's best, most exciting film since 2014's National Gallery.

*In fact, this review has coincidentally been written on his 91st birthday. Happy birthday, Frederick! Though I doubt very much that you're reading this.