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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