By Ezra Haber Glenn
This month, as we inaugurate my new online column Plan to Watch, I'd like to feature some special offerings — all available online and suitable for pandemic-safe home viewing — that celebrate the role of mayors in urban planning and local government.
For film fans of my generation, one movie mayor will always be remembered above all others: Larry Vaughn (portrayed by Murray Hamilton), the shifty, sweet-talking, short-sighted mayor of Amity Island, New York, the fictional ocean-side tourist town in Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975).
Of course, in Spielberg's telling, Mayor Vaughn doesn't come off so well: He puts the perceived needs of the local economy ahead of public health concerns (and ignores his scientific advisors), insisting that it's perfectly safe to keep the beaches open for the big 4th of July holiday weekend, despite warnings of shark sightings and more than one documented attack. In a pivotal scene, the mayor and the police chief (the real star of the film, Roy Scheider), who has succumbed to political pressure, are confronted by a grieving mother whose son has been killed in a shark-attack that could have been prevented. When she slaps the police chief across the face, the entire audience feels it.
I'll leave it to readers to draw parallels with current events and decisions related to public health and the local economy. (Although it is sadly worth noting that Lee Fierro, the actress who so powerfully brought that mother's grief and pain to the screen, passed away from COVID-19 this past year, at the age of 91.) But Vaughn's example makes one thing clear: An awful lot can depend on what the mayor decides. And in order to do their jobs well, these local leaders — whether in film or in city hall — need to consider a wide range of factors at play.
This has been a great season for mayors on film, including an excellent pair of documentaries and the launch of a network TV series set in the corner office.
City Hall (Fred Wiseman, 2020)
Last summer, Planning magazine featured a retrospective on the career of master documentarian Fred Wiseman: nearly 50 completed projects over more than 50 years. Each of Wiseman's films captures the character and essence of a different one of our most beloved (and beleaguered) public institutions, with patience, insight, and honest empathy. (Nearly all bear simple, descriptive, even generic-sounding titles: Public Housing, Welfare, High School — and High School II — Basic Training, Central Park, State Legislature, and so on.)
As anticipated in July, we can now add one more title to the list: Wiseman's insightful documentary on big-city local government, City Hall.
Set in the director's hometown, the filmmaker and his crew settled in to record and convey the daily life of Boston City Hall and the people who staff it. The result is a comprehensive portrait of every organ in the body of local government, including what we come to recognize as its beating heart: the city's hard-working and tireless mayor, the plain-talking and likable Marty Walsh.
"Comprehensive" is an important descriptor here. Brace yourself: As with most of Wiseman's other films, it's loooooong, running over four and a half hours in all. And yet with the right frame of mind, every scene is fascinating. You'll find these hours well-spent, providing new perspective when you return to your typical zoning board meetings or performance reviews.
What comes across is an appreciation for the sheer range of activity that this one building can encompass — parking tickets, marriage certificates, homeless services, coordinating ADA ramps for the public library, parks and housing and arts and infrastructure projects, and everything in between — all while the mayor prepares the city for a Red Sox parade, explains eviction law and housing rights to low-income renters, and rallies nurses for a statewide ballot referendum. Throughout, Wiseman seems determined to preserve and even celebrate the very mundane details that so many other filmmakers would leave on the cutting-room floor. (Case in point: Have you ever seen a movie with a prolonged discussion of the proper way to process an RFP?)
As a result, rather than jumping to the decisions and outcomes, this film explores and reflects on the process. It's chock-full of explaining, discussing, processing, weighing, considering, deliberating, and facilitating. This is what planning-people do, and despite a widespread culture that privileges action and denigrates process, it's also (as Mayor Vaughn in Jaws learned the hard way) how we make decisions — or at least how we make good ones.
City Hall is already making most Oscar short lists in the documentary category, and its quiet star appears ready for his close-up: Mayor Walsh has just been tapped by the incoming Biden-Harris administration for the post of Secretary of Labor (resulting in an unprecedented four mayoral elections over the coming year for Boston, unless the city council steps in).
Stream City Hall for free via PBS, or better yet, catch it in one of the "virtual cinemas" run by the many independent theaters across the country, a nice way to support local business, even if they don't get your popcorn money. (One option: buy a ticket online through Greater Boston's historic Brattle Theatre, which includes a bonus-feature conversation between the director and Mayor Walsh.)
Mayor (David Osit, 2020)
Moving from the Northeast to the Middle East, David Osit's Mayor will transport you to the city of Ramallah, administrative capital of Palestine, where Mayor Musa Hadid brings the same level of daily diligence and calm process to a very different constellation of local government challenges.
Over a tight 90 minutes of film, Osit captures Hadid and his understaffed team in Ramallah's city hall, streets, and neighborhoods, contending with a wide range of hassles and crises, from overflowing sewers and construction delays to (literal) dumpster fires and violent confrontations between protesters and Israeli army forces. (This is, after all, the occupied West Bank.) It's a tense time for the city — Osit was filming in 2017 when U.S. President Trump shocked the region and the world by announcing his intention to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem — and the situation quickly devolves from tense to outright deadly.
Throughout the growing crisis, Mayor Hadid showcases the same strong, calm leadership he demonstrated in the first half of the film, whether it's helping a colleague recover from a tear gas attack or speaking eloquently with the foreign press about the importance of local self-rule. (These conversations raise some of the most perplexing questions for planners to contemplate, related to the nested, overlapping, and conflicted aspects of power in a contested city, asking, "How do you run a city when you don't have a country?")
Importantly, while very little goes smoothly for Hadid, it's not all problems, either. Much of the film centers around plans for a festive downtown Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and holiday celebration, as well as an ongoing rebranding campaign to boost civic pride and change the world's image of the city. (The conversations between Hadid and his PR advisors borders on outright comedy, where he questions them on the meaning of "branding" and they debate the importance of getting the proper spacing between the letters in the city's new slogan: should it be "WeRamallah" or "We Ramallah"?) In some ways, city problems are the same the whole world 'round.
Mayor is available for home viewing through a number of local theaters.
Mr. Mayor (2021–)
Finally, for those readers seeking lighter fare, I'd recommend checking out Mr. Mayor, the new 30-minute comedy on NBC. Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (the team behind 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). The series stars Ted Danson as Mayor Neil Bremer and brings Academy-Award winner Holly Hunter to the small-screen as his deputy mayor (and, to amp up the comedic and dramatic tension, his political rival).
The premise is simple, with obvious parallels to current events. Coming out of retirement to heed the call of public service and prove he's "still got it," millionaire billboard mogul Bremer has been elected mayor of Los Angeles. For the most part, the humor arises from the fact that everyone — except the mayor — knows he is clueless about how to actually do the job. The show is still finding its groove — only three episodes have aired as of this writing — but for those still in withdrawal from the end of Parks and Recreation (or jonesing for the good old days of Spin City), this may help get you through the coming months of isolation. (Mercifully, the show fast-forwards to the end of the pandemic, providing a level of escapism missing from a lot of current TV.)
All episodes are streaming online, or you can tune in on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.
In closing, I also want to give a nod of thanks to the great director Michael Apted, who died this month. In addition to critical favorites Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, and Incident at Oglala, Apted is credited with one of the longest-running sociological research projects in movie history: the Up series of documentary films.
Starting in 1964 with Seven Up! — which interviewed 14 British seven-year-olds from a range of backgrounds — the series followed up on these subjects with another installment every seven years, from the first sequel, 7 Plus Seven (1970), through 35 Up (1991), right up to 63 Up (which came out just over a year ago).
As the children grow up and change, viewers come to understand the complex ways class, ethnicity, race, education, geography, religion, employment, history, economics, the physical environment, and politics all interact — along with the particulars of individual personality, family background, and even random chance — to lead different people to different life outcomes. For planners, an awareness of these interacting processes is invaluable, and the films manage to deliver this analysis without losing the importance of the human element.
Apted once joked that he hoped to continue the series right up to 84 Up (which he'd shoot when he was 99 years old). Unfortunately, those plans were cut short when he died at the age of 79, but we can be thankful for the many years and reels he left us.