Friday, March 06, 2020

Run This Town: The Rob Ford Scandal

Rob Ford, the late former mayor of Toronto was like the Chris Farley of Canadian politics. He was big, rambunctious, often embarrassing, but broadly popular. In many respects, he could be seen as an early populist forerunner to Trump, BoJo, and Bolsonaro. Not surprisingly, the Canadian media hated him—and the feeling was mutual. An under-achieving millennial journalist pursues the crack-smoking scandal that eventually ended Ford’s mayoralty, while his conflicted special assistant scrambles to bury it in Ricky Tollman’s Run This Town, which opens today in New York.

Mopey Bram Shriver is constantly depressed by his overbearing parents’ lack of respect for his journalistic ambitions and his boss’s lack of confidence in his journalistic abilities. After a year at the paper, he still primarily writes listicals (ironically, that means he is probably the most widely read staffer). After a veteran journalist is laid-off, Shriver happens to field an anonymous call placed to her promising something big. After a few awkward meetings, Shriver discovers the Macguffin is a video of Ford smoking crack at a party.

Kamal Arafa’s primary responsibility is keeping the mayor out of trouble. It is a full-time job. Arafa can rarely control his boss, but he is largely successful neutralizing the media. He will have some help from the new press assistant Ashley Pollock, but her commitment to the administration plummets after a drunken sexual harassment incident. Although he is increasingly uncomfortable with Ford’s behavior, Arafa loyally pursues the crack video, which seems to be for sale to the highest bidder.

Tollman’s script does its best to try, convict, and permanently close the books on the now deceased Ford. Yet, despite the film’s obvious bias, it (perhaps inadvertently) humanizes the flamboyant mayor to a surprising extent. In between drunken outbursts, we can see why Toronto voters supported Ford and why Arafa agreed to work for him in the first place. He really was a man of the people, who followed-up on citizen feedback and complaints personally. Yes, he drank like a fish, smoked crack at least once, and often conducted himself in a ragingly inappropriate manner, but he was still probably fitter for office than our current president or the presumptive Democratic front-runner.

That said, it is painfully clear dramatizing Ford’s loutishness is the whole point of this film. Mild spoilers below the fold.

There is indeed plenty of bad Ford behavior, but the entire rookie journalist narrative comes to naught, because Shriver fails to land the scoop and gets terminated as a result. That might be realistic, but it makes viewers wonder why Tollman wastes our time with him, rather than following the journalists who actually broke the story. It also produces a decidedly flat and anti-climactic conclusion, which is capped off by a bizarrely rambling, nauseatingly self-pitying Millennial-identity monologue. Seriously, if you go to RTT in theaters, plan to leave early.

As Shriver, Ben Platt constantly looks sullen and bored, but that is probably convincingly Millennial of him. Mena Massoud is painfully earnest, but still rather believably human as Arafa. However, the unrecognizable Damian Lewis steals the show with his bravura fat-suit performance as Ford. It is a go-for-broke turn that overshadows everyone else, in just about every way possible.

Maybe it is Rob Ford’s revenge that he is the best thing about the film trying to bury his legacy. Let’s face it, this is no All the President’s Men. In fact, RTT does not inspire much veneration for journalists, since the snide cost-cutting editors arguably create nearly as hostile a work environment in the newsroom as Ford does in City Hall. Even with Lewis’s impressive portrayal, it just runs out of gas, cratering into dust. Not recommended, Run This Town opens today (3/6) in New York, at the Village East.