Run This Town featuring Damian Lewis as Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto, opened in NYC movie theaters on March 6, 2020 and went into history as the last movie I saw in a movie theater before the Covid-19 lockdown as well as the only movie I saw with a mask on!
Rob Ford was no ordinary mayor. He was regularly involved in controversy from 2010 to 2014 as he ran the city of Toronto. Ford was, in particular, repeatedly videotaped and photographed while intoxicated in public, culminating in his being recorded smoking crack cocaine as reported by the Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle of the Toronto Star. The Star won the Michener Award, one of the highest distinctions in Canadian journalism, for investigative journalism.
“The Toronto Star exposed Ford’s public drunkenness, boorish behavior, abuses of his office, and existence of a video of him smoking crack cocaine accompanied by members of drug gang. The Star did not waver as the mayor countered every story with vehement denials and attacks.”
And the police investigation the scandal triggered resulted in Ford losing most of his mayoral powers in a quite undignified way.
Now, while it was not surprising to find out Damian, who was born to bring massively flawed characters to life on screen, was cast to play this “flashy, unpredictable politician with no filter” the casting was surprising since Damian Lewis and Rob Ford are not exactly long lost twins… And it really took time for us to lift our jaws up from the floor when Damian tweeted a picture from the set!
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) April 26, 2018
Since Damian’s tweet, I have been obsessing over this movie for one particular reason: We all know less is more with Damian on screen. He can deliver without words and just using facial expressions, say a wink, a smile or a nod. But now that he is buried under prosthetics, he can only have his eyes, his voice, his hands and his body language to an extent with us in the movie. Thus, I have been wondering whether I would be able to “see” Damian in the role. And while I bet I would, I have been looking forward to seeing how he tackles the challenge!
I found the answers to my questions at a 4:40pm showing at Village East Cinema in New York last Friday. Village East is one of the handful movie theaters showing Run This Town in the United States. And while you can watch the movie via on-demand streaming platforms, if you want to catch it at a movie theater, here is the list of movie theaters showing the movie – massive thanks go to the movie’s director Ricky Tollman for kindly sharing it with Gingersnap on Twitter.
Hey Krista! The film opens in theaters across the US tomorrow (see image below) as well as digitally on iTunes, VOD, and the other usual digital suspects. If people search for it on whichever digital or VOD provider they normally use, they're likely to find it! pic.twitter.com/neVSBmAM2G
— Ricky Tollman (@RickyTollman) March 5, 2020
On to my two cents about Run This Town…
Run This Town is not a “Rob Ford” movie. It is a dark comedy made by a millennial, 32 year old Ricky Tollman, to tell a story about three millennials who find themselves in a big scandal surrounding the mayor of Toronto: Bram (Ben Platt) is a young journalist working his ass off to acquire a video featuring Ford cracking cocaine with some drug gang which he believes will help him get a promotion. Kamal and Ashley (Mena Massoud and Nina Dobrev, respectively) are two young mayoral aides doing their best to bury this video and keep Ford out of trouble. All three young actors shine on the screen. And Tollman’s heavy use of split screens and fast-cutting with a constant back and forth between the two parallel stories make the storytelling energetic and engaging.
Bram Shriver (Ben Platt) receives his bachelor’s degree in journalism from University of Western Ontario and starts his internship at The Record, a local Toronto newspaper, thanks to his mom knowing a desk editor’s sister-in-law. While he wants to be a real reporter working on real stories, Bram finds himself writing “best of Toronto” lists after a year at The Record. He is still living with his parents in a wealthy suburb and they are clearly pressing him for a job promotion.
Bram gets lucky one day thanks to downsizing at the newspaper. The phone rings at the desk of one of the major reporters who has just been fired. When Bram answers the phone for her, the caller tells him that he has a good story. When they meet at a laundromat, he shows Bram a photo of the mayor smiling with a group of guys who he claims are part of a drug gang. He can provide Bram with a video showing Ford cracking cocaine with the guys but it will not be cheap.
In parallel, Kamal is the “special assistant” to Mayor Ford. The big difference between him and Bram is that Kamal is a young immigrant who shares a cramped apartment with his grandmother whom he needs to take care of while Bram has his parents to back him up. Kamal’s main responsibility in the office is to cover up Ford’s troubles which seem to have no end to them. In the most recent one, Kamal has successfully buried a story when a former mayoral candidate claimed (true story here) that Ford, drunk, groped her at a party. Kamal has long come to accept that his job is not to stop Ford from making trouble but to clean up after him:
“They don’t call it ‘special assistance’ for nothing.”
Indeed. And Kamal is now training the new mayoral press assistant Ashley Pollack, a fresh law school graduate, to do the job right.
While Kamal knows that Ford is a loose cannon, he also believes he is a good guy, a good mayor. And in the very first scene we meet Mayor Ford, some thirty minutes into the movie, he makes a good impression: He is talking to a mom and her two neighbors and then knocks at a door with Kamal next to him.
“Hi, I’m Rob.”
We find out that Mayor Ford visits every household that has reached out to the mayor’s office with a question or a request IN PERSON. But when he tells the person who opens the door that they will hear from his office in a week…
… and when Kamal corrects him that it could be a month, we find out that the mayor does not like Kamal when he disagrees with him. I admit Ford reminds me a bit of Bobby Axelrod especially when he wags his finger at Kamal.
Rob Ford, who only appears in a handful of scenes in the movie, makes his presence felt at every scene because it is ultimately him that brings the two parallel stories together. The mayor is not a black and white character – he has more than fifty shades of gray. He is charismatic. He is personable. He is funny. He makes time for his constituency as well as for coaching a high school football team. But then he is a populist whom The Record editor aptly calls “the town’s Mall Santa.” Ford is vulnerable. He is insecure. And super needy. And Damian perfectly captures the different sides of this larger-than-life character in every scene he appears. In other words, Damian Lewis RUNS THE TOWN in Run This Town.
While totally unrecognizable as Rob Ford, the way Damian uses the tone of his voice, his posture, and his body language, especially the hand gestures, in bringing such a deeply flawed man into life is pitch perfect. Especially when the mayor goes from happy to angry to sad to angry in the blink of an eye we get to see Damian Lewis at his very best. And I think Damian’s magic touch makes Mayor Ford the human being Tollman wants us to see in the movie. Tollman tells Canadian Jewish News:
“We needed a specific actor that could be that politician. And Damian is charming and funny – but can also play shades of darkness in one moment and then in the next moment you can be laughing with him.”
A scene in which…
Warning: If you do not want to hear any spoilers, stop here!!!
…Ford arrives in the mayoral office visibly drunk and with prostitutes in tow is a turning point in the movie. The mayor engages in embarrassing behavior like yelling at and insulting his young employees, but he also gropes Ashley and makes inappropriate sexual comments to her in front of everyone.
What she goes through convinces Ashley to agree to meet with Bram who has been trying to get hold of any aide in the mayoral office for some time. Ashley tells Bram her story with the condition that the article will not include her name but some journalist has already published the story as Bram arrives at The Record to break it. Bram’s only hope to promotion now is to grab that video of the Mayor!
I remember Robyn Doolittle criticizing Run This Town for swapping the gender of the journalist who broke the Ford’s crack scandal while the movie was still in production. Ricky Tollman, Ben Platt and Damian Lewis all responded to her at the time saying that the movie is not telling her story and it really is not. Bram, a totally green journalist, attempts to break the story, fucks up gloriously and ends up losing his job.
Kamal, on the other hand, uses money from “office expenses” to cut a handsome and obtains the video. But while he stops the video from becoming public, he cannot stop the headlines since a journalist who knows about the video writes about it. And when Kamal visits Ford once the news break, the mayor is beside himself with emotion. The high school football team that he has been coaching has just fired him. In an extremely needy state, Ford asks Kamal to reassure him that this is a temporary situation and he will coach the team again. As Kamal tells him everything will be fine if there is no video, Ford insists there is no video disappointing his young aide who once believed in him. At this point, I am also wondering if the mayor is constantly calling his special assistant “Camel” as a joke or he has never asked Kamal about how to pronounce his name.
Ford gets out of control once he realizes that Kamal is very disappointed with him. If one Kamal goes, another Kamal comes, he says, but his frustration is all over his face as his young aide leaves the room.
Run This Town, especially as a director’s debut movie, does a good job of showing how the high aspiring millennials hit a wall in their careers. They want good jobs but good jobs are scarce goods. Their salaries do not allow them to afford their own apartments and pay off their college debts so many of them end up living with their parents and have a hard time transitioning to being an adult standing on their two feet. And as we see the sharp contrast between Bram and Kamal’s backgrounds – Bram lives with his upper middle class parents who have paid for his new iPhone while Kamal, an immigrant, lives in a small apartment with his grandmother – we know that the struggle will be harder for Kamal.
Oh, and I am not comfortable with the advice Judith, the editor of The Record, (I love Jennifer Ehle in this role and in any role!) gives Bram about what he should do to keep a job:
“All you had to was show up and do what you were asked. Show up, shut up, head down. That’s all a kid like you has to know, has to do.”
Huh? So is that how Judith became the editor? How uninspiring! I do not know about Bram but Judith’s words do not sit right with me at all. AT ALL.
And Ashley? She is yet another victim of harassment in the workplace. I agree with her that if you crack cocaine once as a mayor, that may not force you to leave office, but if you are high as a kite and do not even remember you harassed someone, then you should definitely step down. But when Ashley shares Ford’s inappropriate comments and behavior with the cops, they do question whether she is remembering exactly what happened that evening. Un-fuckin’-believable!
Given that even the cops second-guess Ashley, it is not surprising to see Ford on TV talking to reporters about the latest harassment accusations.
“I’ve never said that in my life to her, I would never do that. I’m happily married, I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”
These are the real words Rob Ford used in response to a former female staff member’s harassment accusations. See the real footage. And, hey, does this kind of language sound familiar?
Damian, when asked in a recent interview with Toronto Sun, compares Rob Ford to the current president of the United States and also to the current Prime Minister of the UK .
“There were small similarities. I don’t think Donald Trump struggles with a crack cocaine problem or alcoholism. What I would say is, they are two rich kids, the sons of two wealthy fathers, and both have populist agendas. He didn’t hold any of the powers that Trump has, but in terms of being a populist, yes. It’s the same as when (U.K. Prime Minister) Boris Johnson was the mayor here (in London). He made populist-type policies and decisions and he was also charismatic, likable, and buffoonish at times. There are those similarities.”