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Hizzoner Among Thieves

My favorite public official, the profoundly corrupt James J. Walker, is said to have spent all his waking hours between 1926 and 1932 lolling in a first-base box at Yankee Stadium, visiting his tailor, brokering crooked deals in speakeasies and throwing dice in a back room at the old Central Park Casino. No wonder Beau James once said of his job: "Who wants to be president when you can be mayor of New York?"

Who indeed? Well, Al Pacino, for one. In Harold Becker's City Hall, an intriguing and messy movie about the intrigues and messiness of big-time urban politics, Pacino portrays a fictional New York mayor named John Pappas, a caring, savvy leader with well-honed gifts for glad-handing, coalition-building, public speaking and deal-making. Once a poor boy from Astoria, Pappas also wants to be president in the worst way, and it is to this eventual end that he devotes his incredible energies. That crisis and scandal may stand in the way is expected; that the sidewalks will be littered with bodies by the end is inevitable, because we are at the movies.

Bronx-born himself, Pacino has borrowed from several New York mayors--charismatic reformer Fiorello LaGuardia, fizzy and feisty Ed Koch, suave John Lindsay and terminally uptight Rudy Giuliani, among others. Pacino's also done his homework on assorted borough bosses and street-tough state senators. But his primary role model is almost certainly former New York governor Mario Cuomo: In John Pappas, the actor combines Cuomo's silver tongue, generous heart and oversized testicles to near-perfection.

But Pappas is Greek-American, and that seems to fit Pacino's international agenda: He played Italians in The Godfather and Serpico, a Cuban in Scarface, a Puerto Rican in Carlito's Way and a bizarre New England Yankee in Scent of a Woman. Now that he's got the Greek thing out of the way, about all Pacino needs to complete his set is a Haitian witch doctor and a leader of Kurdish rebels in Kazakhstan.

All right, then, to cases. City Hall originally was dreamed up by one Ken Lipper, a Manhattan investment king who used to be deputy mayor in the Koch administration. After that, the project got the services of three additional screenwriters, none of them chopped liver: Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; Nicholas Pileggi did Goodfellas and Casino; Bo Goldman racked up One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Scent of a Woman. It rarely bodes well for a movie to have four writers, but this group bewilders us only occasionally. Otherwise, they've come up with a dense, dark drama about the dynamic tension between idealism and realpolitik--about making crucial bargains, or refusing to make them, in "a city that doesn't function in a world that doesn't know right from wrong," as a probation officer puts it.

The shrewd realist John Pappas stands at the center of that city, but his orbit is filled with characters who are as real as sweat. The main one is Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), who, like Lipper, is the mayor's second-in-command. Starry-eyed and more than a bit moralistic, Calhoun is up from Louisiana with his heart on his sleeve--totally dedicated to a boss he believes is the most visionary politician in America. But when a veteran cop and the punk nephew of a Mafia don shoot it out on a Brooklyn street corner, a six-year-old boy is killed in the crossfire, and the best-laid plans of an ambitious mayor start to unravel.

Becker, who also directed Pacino in Sea of Love, has a sure feel for the rough textures of urban political life. He shows us deal-making breakfasts in neighborhood hangouts as well-worn as old shoes; we see bureaucrats and officeholders worrying how the tabloids will play the latest administration crisis; he neatly captures the strutting provincialism in the kind of New Yorkers who believe there is no life worth living west of the Hudson. We see a perfectly world-weary judge (Martin Landau) whose hands might be bloody, and Danny Aiello, who was a New York union boss before he was an actor, just about steals the show as the well-connected Democratic Party boss of Brooklyn, a man with power and secrets. Tony Franciosa makes a rare movie appearance as Paul Zapatti, the impeccably polite Mafia don, and he's terrific in his one big scene.

For the most part, Pacino keeps in check his notorious urge to rave, but he busts loose in one set piece--a thunderous eulogy for the dead boy in a Harlem church, during which the impassioned mayor wins over a hostile audience with his plea to "rise up with me on the wings of this slain angel!" Clearly, it's another Oscar bid, but easy enough to ignore. In fact, young Cusack gets more screen time than Pacino, and the film is more his than the boss's.

Unfortunately, it's also Bridget Fonda's. In other parts, Fonda's fine, but when City Hall asks us to accept Miss White Bread as an up-by-her-bootstraps Irish lawyer from Queens, it's a tall order. When, in unaccented California English, she advises Cusack, a guy adapting to life in New York, to "get the gumbo out of your Yiddish," it's about as convincing as Mary Poppins giving Jack Palance tough-guy lessons. Jimmy Walker would probably pour her a double Jameson and ask her to be quiet.

Minor problems aside, City Hall is a sharp, vivid look at the ambiguities and perquisites of big-city politics--how black and white merge into gray. How all this will play in Iowa is unclear: Obviously, most Americans don't have the affection for New York that these moviemakers have, and while people like Bill Clinton and Bob Dole would immediately grasp the film's Machiavellian tangles, they might need an interpreter to get through its jivey thickets of language. In the end, though, City Hall feels less parochial than pan-political: When John Pappas, who may have to do as a tragic hero in times like these, hugs a police widow and whispers: "The city takes care of its own," the several meanings of his message resonate nicely, even far out in the countryside. There's lots of color in this smart movie, but it's a shade everyone can live with.

City Hall. Screenplay by Ken Lipper, Paul Schrader, Nicholas Pileggi and Bo Goldman. Directed by Harold Becker. With Al Pacino, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, Danny Aiello and Martin Landau.

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