Monday, 28 March 2011

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Review #2. City Hall (Harold Becker, 1996)

The political ladder is a slippery ascent, says City Hall, and snakes inhabit its rungs. Becker's film tells of two men on that ladder, albeit at different heights; Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) and Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), the latter more honest than the former. Is that because he's not a city boy, or because he's a wide-eyed optimist, or because he hasn't experienced the "thousand trades and one deal too many" which rubs out the line between realism and idealism? Do you take a bad deal, or turn the other cheek in order to do a greater good? It's obvious from the get-go of City Hall that the conspiracy trail surrounding a downtown shooting between a cop and a criminal, and the 6-year-old boy who got caught in the firing line, will lead all the way up to Mayor Pappas - such is the nature of power.

It's by no means a perfect film - for one it contains an irritatingly grandstanding performance from Pacino, who in one scene uses the funeral of a young boy to deliver the sort of political rally that only happens in the movies. Of course it's meant to be a grandstanding, but it feels too much like an acting pro getting his jaws around some meaty dialogue and forgetting to invest the humanity. It's Monologue 101, and it stinks. Cusack (eternally boyish) fares better as the sort of character who would be the down-on-his-luck private dick cliché in a 50s noir movie. At times the film takes on the mould of a chase thriller, and for that he makes a compelling lead. After all, for all the intricacies and nuances the film has it functions best as a straightforward intrigue vehicle. The political scope of the film is respectably wide, taking in all aspects of the Mayor/Deputy Mayor's duties. Press conferences, breakfast meetings and hush-hush trade-offs - we're not just restricted to the procedural around the shooting. There's also economic concerns at work, and the building of a new subway system. This is all respectable, but too compacted into a movie which runs at 100 minutes. What keeps it paced like a firecracker is the investigation launched by Deputy Calhoun and the lawyer representing the family of the dead cop - Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda).

She's only in three scenes for the first half of the film, playing second fiddle to the emerging relationship between Pappas and Calhoun. But when mystery oversteps the 'issues' drama Pacino's histrionics take a step back to allow Fonda the pedestal, and she delivers the most grounded, confident performance in the film. She's a tough, no-nonsense sort of lawyer; the sort who gets the Deputy Mayor to call her, and not the other way around. One exchange, when she confronts a shady probation officer, goes thusly:
Officer: You lookin' to grow a pair of brass balls Miss?
Cogan: No thank you, I'm doing well enough without them.
It could so easily fall into the kind of unbelievable strong-woman cliché like the one played by Jodie Foster in Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006), but it never does. I'm all for having tough, independent female characters onscreen, because we really don't have enough of them, but they're so often written with broad strokes. Dress in a suit, talk in a deep voice and employ witty put-downs that have clearly been through several script redrafts. That seems to be the way. But not here. Cogan is just a real city girl - strong willed, resilient and determined. Sure she has a couple of one-liners but Fonda paints an honest background behind her blue eyes. She ensures that strength comes from the place of a life lived in, rather than the pages of a screenplay - which, while we're at it, has four credited writers.

Once again I find myself saying that Fonda is the heart of the film. Not that City Hall has a heart, per se, but she's the person you recognize, the one you relate to and the one you have the most warmth towards. She's the voice of reason and truth, who points out even Calhoun's hypocrisy - and he's the good guy. It's a shame that she's not in the film more because it's when she disappears that it kind of falls apart. Take, for example, the final scene between Pappas and Calhoun, which should be a fascinating political smackdown but ends on a sentimental hug. City Hall isn't a bad film - it's a smart and often gripping one. It's just that it doesn't recognize the ace card in its own deck and so often plays her away...

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