The old rap about politicians was that they’re dirty liars. The new rap is that they’re budget-brained pragmatists with so many conflicting loyalties, constituencies, and priorities that the essence of compromise just about flows through their blood. City Hall, a drama about New York City bureaucratic hanky-panky, is very much a movie of the political moment. The film is structured as an urban-conspiracy drama, yet it’s so crammed with bafflegab about development deals, job creation, and what it takes to fund a new subway station that the dialogue often sounds like a series of position papers being shuffled in front of your face. This may be the first policy-wonk thriller.
The central figure, Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino), is an ebullient contradiction: a humanist wheeler-dealer, the kind of brash civic hero who longs to make people’s lives better yet knows that the only way to accomplish that is to say one thing and do another. Pappas, a master of urban realpolitik, triumphs because he keeps more balls in the air than anyone else. Part of the fun of the movie is seeing the way he operates — stroking egos and placating enemies, winking at his own manipulations. His clout is threatened, though, when a young black child is gunned down by a drug dealer, one of those sensationalistic tragedies that rock New York’s primal nerve center. The killer turns out to be the ne’er-do-well cousin of a Mob boss, and the heart of the mystery is how he got issued a clean probation report. Heading up the investigation is the mayor’s deputy, Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), a feisty young drone who eats, breathes, sleeps, and — most important — never stops talking politics. Calhoun hails from Louisiana, home of the legendarily corrupt Huey Long, and that’s our cue to see that he both grasps the sleazy, back-scratching essence of political gamesmanship and, at the same time, is working all the harder to keep himself above the muck. Calhoun may riff on strategy like a poker-faced James Carville, but he’s really the film’s George Stephanopoulos figure: the wonk as information-age idealist.
We learn early on that the probation report was probably faked. The unraveling of the crime is used to take us on an inside-the-anthill tour of New York’s deal-making machinery. Cowritten by Ken Lipper, who was deputy mayor of New York under Ed Koch, and directed by Harold Becker (Sea of Love), City Hall is a dense, talky movie; it sounds like it was conceived by a bureaucrat. In addition to Lipper, the script is credited to three prominent screenwriters, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi, and Bo Goldman, and you get the feeling that they canceled out one another’s spontaneity. (That’s not a writing team — it’s a poker game.) Still, it helps to have some terrific actors delivering all the talk. As Frank Anselmo, a Brooklyn Democratic boss with a soft spot for Rodgers and Hammerstein, Danny Aiello conveys the coziness of backroom power, and also the price that has to be paid for it. David Paymer, by now, should take a break from playing sad-eyed Jews, but here, cast as the mayor’s yarmulked chief of staff, he proves once again that he’s the current master of wiseacre nudniks. It’s Pacino who holds City Hall together. As Mayor Pappas, Greek scion of the megalopolis, he’s a self-styled fountain of ethnic political passion — less Ed Koch than Mario Cuomo. Perhaps Pacino needs a character this florid to fulfill his own instincts as an actor, but he gives a wily, exuberant performance, conveying Pappas’ witty sense of his own public life as theater. There’s only one scene where Pacino loses his restraint, a ”healing” sermon at a black church that turns into a grotesque parody of liberal compassion.
Ultimately, there’s less to City Hall than meets the eye. It takes most of the film for Calhoun to get to the source of the bogus probation report, even though it’s clear that there are only so many culprits to whom it could lead. A subplot about a corrupt judge (Martin Landau) is played for microwaved pathos. By now, we’ve seen one too many conspiracies in high places. Still, if you’re going to travel the familiar labyrinth of corruption, it helps to have John Cusack as your guide. Speaking in an earnest up-from-the-bayous accent, he gives Calhoun a restless intelligence and daring, especially when the investigation begins pointing where he least wants it to go. In the course of City Hall, Calhoun doesn’t just get to the bottom of a scandal. He grows up, and watching Cusack enact the transformation, I thought I glimpsed this gifted young actor growing into a star. B-