Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tough Look at a Tough Town: The Art of Politics in 'City Hall'

High-level corruption. Murderous political infighting. Mafia infestation. Bilious ethnic strife. Sham legalities. Media manipulation -- no, it's not Moscow in the midst of its raging sleaze war, but a slightly fictionalized New York City, where Al Pacino is a charismatic mayor trying to ride the whirlwind of municipal scandal in "City Hall," a 1996 release now available on video here.

Movies that deal seriously -- as opposed to solemnly or melodramatically -- with American politics are rare indeed. The best, by far, is the little-known Gore Vidal work, "The Best Man," a perfect-pitch re-creation of backroom convention dealing between Henry Fonda's conflicted liberal and Cliff Robertson's Nixonian hustler. There is also Spencer Tracy, magnificent as the old-style Irish pol on his way out in "The Last Hurrah;" Robert Redford, clueless and Quayle-like in "The Candidate;" and Tim Robbins scathingly witty as the right-wing folksinger in "Bob Roberts." After that -- a few films scattered over several decades -- the list gets mighty thin.

While "City Hall" doesn't quite match up to these high standards, in terms of their sheer cinematic power, it is a well-intentioned, often-successful and always-watchable effort indeed. Of course, Pacino, love him or hate him (and there seems to be little middle ground), is always riveting on screen, but here, as Mayor John Pappas, he is used sparingly and effectively; it's one of the very few times you'll see him not overwhelm a picture.

Instead, the focus is on John Cusack as Kevin Calhoun, the young, Louisiana-born deputy mayor who is fiercely loyal and eternally vigilant in his tending of the rising Pappas flame. While realistic and pragmatic to the point of cynicism, Calhoun also happens to have a hard core of morality -- a trait that doesn't sit too well in the deal-making, oath-breaking world he has joined. But director Harold Becker does a good job of delineating that world in a believable way: While we see the deals, the corruption and hypocrisy laid out clearly, we also feel the charm, the power, and the genuinely human -- and genuinely sad -- self-delusions of those immersed in public life.

The first half of the movie is particularly good at this, and culminates in a set-piece for Pacino: a bit of blazing oratory at the funeral of a black child killed in a cross fire between a police detective and the nephew of a Mafia don. Pacino soars and wails like a gospel aria and gets the initially hostile black audience rocking the church with equal fervor. It's a powerful scene, and its many complexities and ambiguities are not made clear until the final reel of the ingeniously plotted film.

The child's death is the spark of a scandal that spreads from the grubby streets of the Bronx, where Danny Aiello holds sway as a populist councilman, to the rarefied air of a federal judge's chambers, where Martin Landau grapples with questions of conscience. And every step of the way, Cusack's Calhoun fights a two-front battle: to keep the mayor's image untarnished by the row, and to find the truth of why the Mafia nephew -- already convicted of several crimes -- was walking the streets in the first place. His efforts are sometimes hindered, sometimes aided by Mary Beth Cogan (Bridget Fonda), a combative lawyer for the police union. Fonda is curiously underused here, as she was in the last film she made with Pacino ("The Godfather III"), but does a lot with the little she's given.The script was the work of many hands, including fine screenwriters like Paul Schrader and Nicholas Pileggi, but its art-by-committee quality does show through in an overall lack of narrative cohesion. By trying to cram too much into the work -- a crime-thriller plot, gritty street drama, the fascinating mechanics of politics, moral dilemmas and personal choices -- they dissipate much of the tension and impact the story should have had. It is interesting, even gripping at times; but it had the potential to be truly moving, and it just misses that.

Still, in this feverish political season, as Dole bashes Clinton and Major tweaks Blair and the Kremlin seethes with poisonous fumes, "City Hall" can provide poll- and pol-watchers with a nice chunk of enjoyable and safe entertainment. After all, unlike the case with these other bizarre sideshows, the film doesn't hold the fate of nations in its hands.

"City Hall" is available for rent at Video Express, located in the Post International Store at 1/2 Maly Putinkovsky Pereulok. Tel. 209-9168.