When the photos first emerged of Damian Lewis on-set in prosthetic makeup as late Toronto mayor Rob Ford — whose crack smoking scandal and sometimes debaucherous behaviour became fodder for late night jokes (and a Kimmel interview) and global fascination — it was easy to assume the movie was all about him. Instead, Run this Town examines two storylines; the spinmaster political staffers behind the scenes of it all (led by Aladdin’s Mena Massoud and Nina Dobrev), and the reporters trying to stay one step ahead of the story (Ben Platt, with Scott Speedman and Jennifer Ehle as his editors). We don’t see Damian’s take on Rob, prosthetics and all, until about 30 minutes into the film.
By then, you’re on board. Run this Town is the type of kinetic, clever ensemble dramedy in the vein of The Big Short or Margin Call. It has the latter’s director, J.C. Chandor, serving as a producer and J.C.’s collaborator, producer Randy Manis, on the team too. Run this Town opens on a snappy, spirited discussion between several of the Toronto city council assistants tabling a new budget proposal for additional discretionary office funds, before Mena’s Kamal, the mastermind and special assistant to the mayor, gives Nina’s Ashley the rundown on how things really work at City Hall, especially in their office. Distract, evade from any of his race-related or sexist controversies, and remember to stress he’s “our” mayor and a man of the people. And when Rob’s partying gets out of control, it’s Ashley’s job “to make sure no one knows he needed to be cut off.”
On the flip side is Ben Platt’s Bram, a hungry investigative journalist desperate to make a splash in his first post-grad gig, writing for the fictionalized newspaper, The Record. His first assignments though? They’re not quite what he, or his family, were expecting. Lots of “Best Hot Dog in the City” lists. When he asks his jaded editor David (Scott Speedman, who is great at playing an oft-defeated mentor) why he can’t write the news when millennial-friendly Buzzfeed has gotten into the news game, and still releases lists, David answers, “No one who cares about news reads it on the sidebar of ‘15 Paperweights that Look Like Beyoncé.’” David’s boss, played by Jennifer Ehle, is trying to have her paper seize control over chasing the mayor, who takes pictures with everybody, and whom she dubs, “The town’s mall Santa.” Through layoffs and chance, Bram finally gets his first shot at reporting on Rob when he stumbles into contact with the now-infamous crack video dealer. But does he truly have the hunger and skill to get the scoop, or will he get scooped?
Even though we know how this crack video story breaks, and who got the credit (the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle, now at the Globe and Mail, and Kevin Donovan and Gawker’s John Cook,), it’s just as fascinating and chaotic to see it unravel now as it was back in 2013. Rob’s denials to his team, a sexual harassment and groping scandal, and the mayor’s objectively impressive string of house calls and phone calls to his constituents, and a high school football team are all in the mix. Where the film falls, though, is in the exclusion of Doolittle from its narrative. She wrote a book on the scandal, Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, about his legacy, family political dynastic dreams and controversies with his staff and that famous video, and promoted it on the late night circuit with appearances on Seth Meyers and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It’s tough to divorce her input from the story, especially if you’re from Toronto, because she was so integral to the case. She also tweeted about her disappointment at being left out of the story when the first photos of Damian-as-Rob surfaced. That her character is being played by a man, in these times, when we’ve been talking about a different kind of storytelling and perspective, seems retrograde.
If you’re new to the Rob Ford story or can look past that context (and Robyn’s pushback), there’s enough tension to keep the film afloat on its own with its fictionalized upstart reporter character Bram and his family’s healthy dose of Jewish guilt. There are omissions since both storylines feature composite characters, or fresh ideas about covering the scandal, millennial guilt, and burnout from first-time writer-director Ricky Tollman, whose brother worked as a TV producer and reporter when all of this was going down. It’s an ambitious debut and, in a way, feels like what Jason Reitman may have intended with The Front Runner, about the fall of political candidate Gary Hart (starring Hugh Jackman).
Damian’s prosthetics (especially around the neck) are distracting but using him so sparingly and giving little context to his family’s input or personal demons makes “Rob” more inscrutable, unpredictable, and congenial. The distance from that subject puts the audience firmly with Mena’s Kamal and Nina’s Ashley, who steal the film. Kamal is sly, but loyal to the mayor and his style of civic customer service, until he can’t protect him anymore. Ashley is a headstrong law grad whose quick disillusionment and vulnerability make her, and her grievances, impossible to ignore. The Canadians in this cast (Mena, Nina, Scott, Justin Kelly, and Lauren Collins as Ben Platt’s sister) shine, but none more so than Mena. His charm and textured scheming provide a glimpse of how he’ll fare as Aladdin. His casting makes perfect sense, especially when you see his political hustle and sweet talking.
Can’t hate something you haven’t seen 😉 🙏🏽 for the support— Mena Massoud (@MenaMassoud) March 14, 2019
When I returned from Austin, all anybody in Toronto wanted to ask me was what my thoughts were on “the Rob Ford movie.” I had to explain that it’s not a play-by-play of what happened, nor is it centered around Rob Ford, his foibles and legacy. But it still works and translates as its own unique (and partly fictional) rendition of what really happened. The question now is how this film will be released. It has a distributor behind it in Canada but has not yet sold down south. Something tells me that if the film were to release a trailer or clip, it would give it all the help it needs to reignite the international fascination with what really happened in Toronto between 2012 and 2014.
Oh, and about those Nina Dobrev and Scott Speedman rumours that Lainey wrote about the other day, which would totally break the Internet? To my recollection, they do not share any scenes together. I missed the Run this Town after-party because I was too busy swaying to Boyz II Men, but they appeared to have a blast promoting the film as a team.