Film

At 25, John Sayles’ ‘City of Hope’ Stands as Stellar Pre-‘Wire’ Urban Portraiture

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“Everybody’s a politician,” a character notes early on in John Sayles’s City of Hope. It’s the kind of throwaway line that sometimes, perhaps accidentally, summarizes a whole movie. The speaker is a cop, dismissing a glad-handing detective with ambitions for higher office — a minor character talking about an even more minor character. But he might as well be talking about any member of the vast dramatis personae of this strange, wonderful film, one of the most unjustly forgotten works of its decade and a major career highpoint for director Sayles. This is a story built around negotiations, one in which each character has to posture and reset, present and reflect.

City of Hope was released 25 years ago this week, and it arrived trailing clouds of glory. Newspaper ads reprinted the entirety of Vincent Canby’s glowing review in the New York Times. Sayles, dubbed “the father of independent film,” had risen to prominence throughout the Eighties, culminating in his masterful period dramas Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988). Now, he had turned his attentions to the complex, inner workings of a fictional New Jersey metropolis called Hudson City. The film won plenty of acclaim — though, to be fair, Georgia Brown panned it in the pages of the Voice as an “abrasive…old-fashioned, rub-your-nose-in-it slice of sordidness” — but it did merely OK business, and hasn’t been heard from much in the intervening years. No DVD was released, though it does pop up on cable now and then. A restored version screened at Sundance earlier this year, so there’s hope that we’ll be hearing more about it soon.

But to my impressionable teenage eyes, City of Hope seemed instead a gritty, realistic, you-are-there drama, and a uniquely expansive one at that. Sayles’s roving camera drifts from character to character and subplot to subplot — often in the same shot — capturing snatches of conversations, accumulating them into a cinematic fresco as immediate and righteous as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (released two years prior) and as naturalistic and sprawling as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (released two years later). But watching Sayles’s film today, I’m struck by how stylized and theatrical it is. Its mastery lies not in its urgency or authenticity, but in its almost Olympian remove and essayistic approach to narrative. Not only is everybody in the film a politician, so is the director.

It’s hard to summarize the story of City of Hope, as it is both dense and strangely granular. It opens on layabout worker Nick (Vincent Spano) walking off the job at a construction project, while his builder father Joe (Tony Lo Bianco) argues with do-gooding alderman Wynn (Joe Morton) about hiring more African-Americans. Heavily in debt and nursing a coke habit, Nick agrees to join two pals in robbing an electronics store for sleazebag autoshop owner and smalltime hoodlum Carl (played by Sayles himself). But Nick is about as into thievery as he was into his construction gig, and instead spends most of his time falling for single-mom waitress Angela (Barbara Williams). Her abusive, stalker cop ex accosts and humiliates two young black kids on the street, who in response take their anger out on a passing jogger in the park. The jogger goes to the cops, but the kids make up a story about him trying to seduce them. Wynn, who is focused on trying to get a bond approved for the public schools and arguing against the city’s discriminatory housing practices, gets involved at the urging of the black community. Meanwhile, the store robbery gets botched, thanks to Wynn’s bother-in-law, who had just been hired (at the urging of Wynn) as a security guard. The fallout from that ropes in Nick’s father, who agrees to torch one of his own buildings in an effort to appease Carl. That in turn sets off another chain of events, and round and round we go.

See what I mean? There’s plenty of drama and tragedy in City of Hope, but no one plot strand feels entirely consequential enough to build a whole film around. These are the kinds of background stories that often give other movies texture or depth, but they each in turn take center stage here. And Sayles flits from bit to bit, placing each element of his huge urban portrait in context, rarely letting any individual part scale up and take over. (In some ways, it’s a compact precursor of shows like The Wire and Treme.) Much of the film takes place in spaces that are public or otherwise bring together multiple characters and story strands — community meetings, speeches, restaurants, streets, garages, police stations. This highlights the central tension between conscience and community.

Many critics at the time saw Nick as the protagonist, which may or may not be accurate: The story does begin and end on him, and, in a film built around characters transacting and navigating their way through a rigged system, he’s the one who desperately wants out. But I’d argue that the focus is split between Nick and Joe Morton’s hard-working politico Wynn, between the man who checks completely out of this world and the man who struggles mightily, often futilely, to improve it. Nick has never gotten over the death of his older brother in Vietnam, and he rebels against his wealthy father by casting his lot with crooks — but then rebels against them by pursuing what he thinks is the woman of his dreams. Wynn, meanwhile, tries to appease all sides: The black activists who see him as selling out to the white establishment (“Professor Oreo,” they call him), the intransigent builders and unions, and the smarmy, glad-handing mayor (Louis Zorich). Looming over all of them is the often intolerant and feckless citizenry, here represented by the Greek chorus-like presence of two nattering, racist housewives. (“It’s the welfare! Why work when you don’t have to?”)

A lot of the dialogue in City of Hope feels on the nose, and it’s often delivered in deliberate fashion — with a precision and clarity that might feel more at home on the stage. There’s even a certain theatricality to cinematographer Robert Richardson’s lighting, which allows characters to wander into pools of light as they walk and talk; the effect is somewhere between a performance and an interrogation. (It’s also quite gorgeous, its deep blacks punctured by occasional cascades of brightness.) This somewhat aestheticized remove serves Sayles well. He’s not trying to immerse us in a reality so much as trying to lay bare the workings of a modern city, a complex machine churning away with each cog doing its designated job: the corrupt mayor, the dirtbag mechanic, the idealistic activist, the compromising alderman. His sinewy camera moves, his chattering characters, his busy plot filled with small people doing small things — it’s all part of a system. In City of Hope, Sayles presents us with something vast and indescribable, then dares to find a kind of terrible beauty in it.