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Review: Run This Town

March 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

In Run This Town, a Canadian political satire that serves as the feature debut of writer-director Ricky Tollman, a young upstart journalist named Bram (Ben Platt) tries to track down a video of the Mayor of Toronto smoking crack cocaine, as the mayor’s handlers led by “special assistant” Kamal (Mena Massoud) try desperately to keep the unravelling politician in check.

If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because Run This Town is based on the real life saga of the late Rob Ford, only it offers a somewhat fictionalized version of events. For starters, the film erases Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle, the Toronto Star reporters who chased the story in real life, replacing them with Platt’s composite character, who also has elements of The Star’s Daniel Dale and reporter Jonathan Goldsbie worked in.

At the start of the film, Bram has just graduated from university with a degree in journalism, only to end up working for a local website writing puff pieces and listicles about “the best hotdogs in the city,” under the tutelage of an editor, David (Scott Speedman), who seems reluctant to assign his eager new recruit more important stories. But as rumours start to swirl around about Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis) acting drunk and disorderly, both at public events and in private with staff, this leads Bram to take an active interest in Toronto’s leader.

With the mayor’s office treating the media with hostility and not providing them with Ford’s daily itinerary, Bram starts to work out where the mayor has been through social media. This leads to him getting a tip about a video floating around of Ford hanging out with drug dealers and smoking crack cocaine. Bram becomes obsessed with chasing the story, and his editor reluctantly agrees in hopes that it will bring clicks to the site, but those who have the video are demanding thousands of dollars for it.

The film also heavily focuses on two other made up millennials; the aforementioned Kamal, a young immigrant who serves as Ford’s closest advisor and is left to clean up many of his messes; and Ashley (Nina Dobrev), a young woman in his office who describes herself as the “token gay” and is also forced to endure increasingly uncomfortable encounters with Ford. Those familiar with the story will find it pretty easy to figure out who Dobrev’s character is modelled after.

The basic and most well known elements of the Rob Ford crack tape scandal are worked in here one way or another, but the film is told almost entirely through the lens of these fictional characters. The absence in the film of Rob’s brother Doug Ford, (who is incidentally now the Premier of Ontario, with the Ford family fancying themselves as a Canadian political dynasty akin to the Kennedys), is also noticeable, especially considering how many viewed the two siblings as “co-mayors.”

Much of what Bram does in the film is what Doolittle actually did in real life, and there is something uncomfortable about the fact that we are essentially watching a fictionalized male reporter taking over the role of a real life female one. On this note, I would recommend reading Doolittle’s 2014 book Crazy Town, on which this film seems loosely based, to get better insight into Rob Ford and the real players involved. It’s also worth balancing it out with Rob and Doug’s own book Ford Nation, which is named for their block of supporters and, while obviously slanted in their favour, offers a gut-wrenching account of Rob Ford’s final months and days as he succumbed to cancer, cutting his political career short.

Since it went into production, the biggest selling point of this film has been the stunt casting of British actor Damien Lewis as Rob Ford, with the trailers only offering glimpses of his portrayal. Lewis is almost unrecognizable under the heavy prosthetics, but the layers of makeup don’t quite look right on his slim frame. From certain angles, it ends up looking like a fat suit around his middle with slender legs coming out the bottom. The prosthetics also limit the expressiveness of his face, making him appear almost frozen in close ups, and Lewis’ attempt at copying the late mayor’s voice comes out like a bad stereotype of a Canadian accent.

If Chris Farley were still alive, he would have made an ideal Rob Ford, and the same could be said for the late John Candy, both actors who not only had the right physicality but also would have recognized the inherent pathos beneath Ford’s exterior. Ford is presented here almost entirely as a cruel, mean boss, and while he was troubled and did have these moments mostly under the influence, it’s also far from a nuanced or even necessarily fair portrayal. Aside from a revealing moment when he seems most worried about the crack tape meaning that he will no longer be allowed to coach his beloved high school football team, what Run This Town all too rarely shows is his inherent humanness, which is precisely the thing that endeared many supporters to him, warts and all.

The film also ignores another crucial fact about Rob Ford; and that’s that his story is ultimately a more tragic and much sadder one than the salacious headlines would suggest. If you wanted to tell his story right, it would be the story of a man embattled by addiction, only to die of cancer at what should have been the peak of his career after desperately trying to get clean. While Ford’s infamous reputation is being used as the tantalizing hook to get audiences in the door, the film’s portrayal of him doesn’t quite work and is ironically one of the weakest aspects of Run This Town.

But, while it doesn’t get everything right, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy watching Run This Town, and I think there is enough here to make it worth seeing, especially for fellow Torontoians and political junkies. Tollman’s screenplay is filled with snappy, Sorkin-inspired dialogue, and there are sharp barbs throughout, as his script offers pointed critiques of privilege, entitlement, clickbait journalism, and other aspects of millennial culture.

The film opens with a fiery scene in the council chamber of Toronto City Hall in which Kamal and other assistants hold a mock debate about office expense accounts. It’s a fun scene that ironically gets to the heart of why Rob Ford became so popular in the first place, with his promise to root out the wasteful spending at City Hall, or stopping the “Gravy Train” as he famously called it, holding great appeal for a lot of particularly suburban voters who felt alienated from the downtown core.

In the leading role, Platt nicely demonstrates his ability to handle non-musical dramatic roles, with his stage background shining through in his ability to deliver the at times rapid fire dialogue. Massoud is also quite good here and the real breakout star for me, delivering a performance that serves as a much more compelling calling card for the young actor than his starring role in Disney’s live action Aladdin, which was supposed to be his big break. While many will go to the film out of perverse curiosity to see Lewis as Rob Ford, Platt and Massoud are the real reasons to see Run This Town.

Those of us who know the real Rob Ford story pretty much inside and out will find incongruities in this fictionalized retelling and, like the recent Bombshell which also added made up characters to a fact-based story, this makes Run This Town an at times frustrating viewing experience. But if the film isn’t entirely successful at what it sets out to do, it is also consistently entertaining as a political satire, and filled with sharply worded dialogue exchanges. Clocking in at a brisk 94 minutes, Run This Town is also uncommonly slick and fast-paced in its assembly, and serves as a mostly promising debut for Tollman.

Run This Town is now playing at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto. It will be expanding to Vancouver and Montreal on March 13th, before going wider on March 20th, including to more theatres in the GTA. Please check local listings.

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