Too soon for a movie about Jack Layton?

Aaron Wherry on a fine rendering of Jack Layton’s life, love and last campaign

There is nothing else on television that compares with politics. Nothing in sports or entertainment comes near to matching the humanity, ego, power, celebration and conflict of it. As drama, it is perfect. Not only because there is so much at stake for society, but because there is so much at stake for the principal participants. How we govern ourselves is both our most fundamental construct and our greatest spectacle.

The latest attempt to make a film of this real show is Jack, a fine rendering of Jack Layton’s life, love, last campaign and final days. As much as can be conveyed in 88 minutes about a life spent practicing politics is neatly laid out. Rick Roberts does an admirable and impressive job in the title role, particularly in his grasp of Mr. Layton’s inherent goofiness. Sook-Yin Lee is quite good as Olivia Chow. Mr. Layton’s faithful aides—Brian Topp, Brad Lavigne, Anne McGrath and Karl Belanger—are well drawn. (Although it’s easy to quibble with the depictions of people you’ve actually met and spoken with at length—Brian Topp is more interesting a personality than is shown here—I’ll say that there is some real semblance of them on the screen.)

There seem to be some concessions made to dramatization—the Ottawa bar where New Democrats tend to hangout isn’t quite as nice and spacious as depicted—but the essence of Jack Layton is there. In some cases explicitly. After Mr. Layton’s defeat in Toronto’s 1991 mayoral election, he is consoled by Ms. Chow, who hugs him and says, “It’s not personal, Jack. It’s politics.” Mr. Layton quickly corrects her. “No, no, no, it is personal,” he says. “Win or lose, it has to be.” Later, in the hospital, dying from cancer, he explains to an admiring nurse that politics is just a trade like any other. I don’t know whether those conversations happened precisely as portrayed, but they might as well have. Jack Layton was thoroughly and entirely a politician. And so here is a movie about a politician.

Is it perhaps too soon for a movie about Jack Layton? It might feel that way. Pierre Trudeau was dead two years and it had been 18 years since he last held office when the CBC portrayed him in a miniseries. John A. Macdonald had been dead for 120 years when the CBC gave him a movie. For the most part, a certain period of time must pass before we feel it safe to pay tribute to a politician. They are not to be admired until we feel we can do so without thinking about all of the things we thought were silly and despicable about them. It has only been a year and a half since Mr. Layton passed and he had only just stepped away from politics. But then his passing was remarkable in that it showed we were still able to admire and respect a politician. And not just a politician, but a man who was so completely political. So perhaps here we should allow ourselves to appreciate a politician we knew so recently, even if everything about our evolutionary cynicism tells us not to.

For sure, there is much to appreciate: good causes and important efforts and, over the course of a lifetime, a commitment to the practice of politics. There are no doubt aspects of representative democracy that are grubby and selfish, but then such is life. Politics may not be noble, but it is important. We should not naturally despise it. Or, if we do, we should we still hope to find some good. Jack Layton did some good and found some success as well. Even if some of the appreciation of his life is a result of the tragedy of his death, he is still possibly one of the this country’s great politicians. Or at least one of this country’s great political stories. And in his life are reasons to see the good that can be (and is) in politics.

There are a few moments that might seem hokey—and, yes, not one, but two appearances of Parachute Club’s Rise Up—but the film is not too overly earnest. It is, of course, a bit odd to see an acted account of events you (in this case, me) actually witnessed. Admittedly, I enjoyed a privileged seat for that particular show. The scrum at which Mr. Layton announced he would not support the budget was, if memory serves, approximately twice as crowded as the movie depicts—Mr. Layton looking pale and hobbling to a lectern that was swarmed by reporters. The first week of the NDP campaign was as dismal as the movie suggests—in reality, the quibbles from reporters over the size of the crowd in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia resulted in a rare public flash of anger from Mr. Layton.

It is easy to forget now, but for a brief moment in the late stages of that campaign, it was possible to believe that Jack Layton might become the next prime minister of Canada. And it is important to remember how truly preposterous it all was. Even after the NDP surge seemed to level-off in the final days, there was something surreal about that final stretch: everything Mr. Layton had spent the previous eight years talking about while the rest of us scoffed seemed suddenly to be happening. And Ruth Ellen Brosseau was about to become an MP. The film skips entirely the final weekend, including the report from Sun News of a massage Mr. Layton received 15 years earlier that seemed momentarily to imperil everything, but also the heady bus ride from Montreal to Toronto on the last day, when the crowds that greeted him made it obvious something was going on and he and Ms. Chow kissed upon his arrival in Toronto. The campaign officially ended in a packed gymnasium in Scarborough. The next day, that riding, where a New Democrat had never finished better than third, went to the NDP by 5,000 votes. To watch the returns come in that night was to laugh—I believe I might have—at how much orange there suddenly was on the map. It was an incredible show to behold.

Less than four months later, Mr. Layton was dead. That was tragedy. And the outpouring that greeted his death was redeeming. And it could all easily be described as cinematic. But then it was all something like real life.

For more on Jack Layton’s life and death, see Maclean’s on Jack Layton featuring our best stories covering the former NDP leader’s remarkable  decade on the Hill. This collection of in-depth profiles and short features delivers a portrait of the man. There’s also a behind-the-scene’s look at the crafting of Layton’s last letter to Canadians, and the influence it had on the nation. Olivia Chow also shares her thoughts on what inspired her late husband.

 




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Too soon for a movie about Jack Layton?

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • I gather you were there to verify the nature of the services rendered.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • Jack Layton was never ever ever implicated in a police raid on a questionable massage parlour. I love Big Brother. And Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia.

        • “I love Big Brother. And Eurasia …. ”

          That made me laugh, thanks for that.

  2. CBC production wonder what Ontario lake Layton will walk on

    • If you can’t say anything nice, how about you stop saying anything at all.

      • agreed, Layton was the best MP to ever walk the isles or parliament. Imagine what Canada would be like right now if he had won. half our national; would be gone already pot laws abolished and a huge chunk of prison population would be released and help boost the economy through the latter. free internet to all, senate would be abolished. I mean on. it’s all common sense.

      • agreed, Layton was the best MP to ever walk the isles of parliament.
        Imagine what Canada would be like right now if he had won. half our
        national; would be gone already pot laws abolished and a huge chunk of
        prison population would be released and help boost the economy through
        the latter. free internet to all, senate would be abolished. I mean on.
        it’s all common sense.

  3. I’m pining for a series of movies about, among others, JJC Abbott, Sir Arthur Meighan, RB Bennett and others. Personally, I think the movie about Sir Mackenzie Bowell would be best done as a comedy.

  4. Of course it’s too soon for a movie about Jack. It’ll obviously be a fluff piece designed to make Jack out to be much more than he actually was.

    Why is the CBC making a movie about a guy who was leader of the official opposition for only a few months? His personal contributions to Canadian government will surely be blown completely out of proportion.

    • The CBC is making a movie because they think/hope it will get good ratings. Why else does ANY broadcaster commission a television production. Would you be happier if CTV or Global were the broadcaster?

      • If they were looking for ratings, they wouldn’t be making a movie about a guy who was leader of the opposition for a few months, and did virtually nothing during that period.

        • And someone who had one of the largest public funerals in my memory (50+yrs). I bet that every broadcaster in the country was looking at some kind of biopic in the wake of his death. Your personal opinion of what he did/didn’t do while leader of the opposition isn’t going to influence the decision of the viewing public – their individual personal opinions & interests are what drives ratings.

      • No CTV or Global are private companies and do have to worry about a viable product The CBC is on the public dime and does not have to worry about ratings; you watch what they show or not they don’t care the Government still pays the freight

    • Why a Jack Movie from Mother Corp?…To make sure Andrea Horvath gets a lot of sympathy voting in the next election

  5. I rarely watch movies and probably won’t bother with this one. But, as a comparison of cultures, it occurs to me that in the Benighted States, this would be a myth-making movie of the week in which a public figure is elevated to unassailable heroic stature (in which Jack kills a bear when he is only three). In Canada, OTOH, it’ll be dismissed as a partisan puff piece, rife with factual errors.

    Oh, and people will be clamouring to know how many public dollars went into its creation.

    • All Americans are Benighted. Canadians are innately superior to Americans. At least progressive Canadians are.

      • All Canadians are “progressive”. If you’re not “progressive”, you’re not Canadian.

        • That’s true. Liberal Party values are Canadian values. And I’m sure once Justin Trudeau comes up with an actual policy platform, it will reflect those values. Like the fact that Albertans are not fit to hold federal elective office. Perhaps that will be one of JT’s policy planks — banning Albertans from running for federal elective office — unless they’re Liberals, of course . . .

          • I think you fail to realize that there aren’t Canadian values and Liberal values, they’re one in the same. Canadian values are whatever the Liberal Party of Canada says they are.

  6. This comment was deleted.

    • I would delete you if i could !

      How dare you speak the truth in the comment section of a Fluff review about a Fluff movie about a Fluff politician.

      • That’s doubly amusing, given what a “fluffer” refers to in the porn industry . . .

        • And of course, many people did remark that Jack’s moustache was a porn star moustache . . .

    • What is this? From the Lies about Layton and Slander about Suzuki Network that loves Ayn Rand and desperately wants to become a corporate welfare recipient?

  7. You all sound like what I imagine a bunch of bent-out-of-shape Sun media staffers would sound like.

  8. Whoa! You crabs in a barrel – let the man be -

  9. A wonderful man and human being-I know that you are in the Light Jack and all is well!!

  10. An excellent, fun read; thanks.

    You speak of the CBC history so I will use that as the segway.

    Harper’s cronies have got the CBC by the throat now. Decent unbiased journalism is by the way now. Any knowledgeable comments about the Conservatives plans history or failings are blocked. No comments like that allowed.

    I don’t know if hes trying to starve the CBC to death or is just his paranoid old self. His right win approach to US Republican standards has not gone un noticed.

    • I can only assume that you are watching some version of the CBC that is not available to the rest of us.

      • Hardly. He is doing an end run on the CBC to privatize it. This has been the Conservative dream forever! Now, its a real easy place to cut budgets. If I tried to put this up on their site it would allow me to post but would not show up in the posting nor in my account as being posted.

        No my friend. If you came forward with consistent fact or line up his facts in an unfavorable way; you are out of there.

        Today’s letter from Harper tells of an agreement with the NWT in which the feds give them all the provincial rights with the exception of the administration and management of public lands, water resources, mineral resources and oil and gas management!

        In other words they can pay their own way but they get none of the resources; Ottawa is keep that.

        This fact and comment would never be allowed on the CBC being sensord by Harper’s crew!

    • “Decent, unbiased journalism” in the CBC has been lacking since the late 20th century…and that’s being too kind.

  11. He was lucky enough to die before the bloom of his federal career wore off…something like Steve Jobs. While I am certainly not an NDP supporter, I think it would be nice to remember him as he would like to be remembered, and encourage our surly lot on the Rideau to behave with a little more bon vivance.

  12. I drove four hours and lined up at Roy Thompson Hall at 1 a.m., in order to be inside. I’m sixty five, an almost life long committed social democrat, and like a lot of others I was in tears that day. Having the same hair and the same moustache, I had the honour to be mistaken for him many times, (though he was admittedly much better looking, and taller) and I saw a number of people doing a double take that day, and was asked a few times if I was Jacks brother. I also had the honour then to have my photo taken with Sven Robinson, to have seen Prime Minister Jean Chretien climbing over a fence, to have witnessed and heard in person Stephen Lewis’ amazing eulogy- and, to give him credit, to witness Prime Minister Harper standing, with his wife, in honour at the ovations. A class act. Thank you Mr. Prime Minister.
    I must say as well that the security people that day were fantastic- helpful, gentle, extremely professional in every way. And it is a testament to this country, I think, that none of us were frisked, or x-rayed, or had bags searched, when we common folk were allowed in- over one thousand of us. Roy Thompson Hall put on a wonderful get together afterwords, and I was in tears again while shaking Mr. Lewis’ hand.

    It all does seem like a tragedy, but also a remembrance of a life of service, well lived, well loved. Sadly, and sorely missed today.

    Miss you, Jack.

    -Bill Desmond

    Point Clark Ont.

  13. I watched “Jack” last night, even though I am an NDP supporter, I thought the movie was so tastefully done. Of course the end was sad, but death is sad. Jack Layton will be missed by all. He was indeed a good man.

    • Death is a new beginning.

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