The Globe thinks it’s too soon to give Jack Layton the honour of a movie

But it actually should have been a more political project
No other Canadian dominated the headlines like Jack Layton in 2011, making him the clear choice for Newsmaker of the Year by editors and news directors participating in the annual survey of newsrooms across the country by The Canadian Press. Layton received 90 per cent of the votes — one of the most overwhelming margins in the 65-year history of the CP Newsmaker voting. NDP Leader Jack Layton raises his cane to the crowd at a campaign rally in Burnaby, B.C. on Friday, April 30, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

The Globe’s editorial board extends its collective thumbs downwards.

The concept for a biopic on Jack Layton, the late NDP leader, was a dubious one from the start. Why add to the eulogies now? Why not let more time elapse, to see whether he could be cast as an enduringly significant historical figure, as was the least the case with another recent, flawed CBC biopic of another New Democrat, 2006’s Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story?

New rule: you must be out of office 27 years before a true assessment of your political career can reasonably be hoped to be made.

Why not allow the myth to take shape organically, instead of trying to shape it? In the case of Jack, it is heavy-handed on the part of the CBC. Canadians don’t need the public broadcaster to decide which of its recently deceased politicians merit a mythology.

New rule: there should be a referendum every four years to determine which politician is next portrayed in a CBC movie. Campaigns for potential subjects would have to register as political parties. Attack ads would be encouraged. We could basically re-run entire elections of the past.

It is good that the CBC is supporting Canadian dramatic productions and presenting Canadian stories. This is part of the corporation’s mandate, to tell Canadians about Canadians. The filmmakers should also be lauded for portraying the often overlooked good sides of politicians. They would find the same if they did a biopic of most Canadian federal and provincial politicans of any stripe. Generally speaking, they are motivated by good intentions, even if the policies don’t always match them. They care about their fellow citizens and want to do good things for the country.

New rule: scratch those first two rules and make a movie about every politician who passes away.

So what was the CBC thinking? Jack is a varnished view of Mr. Layton – that is, beyond a few scenes that showed how Torontonians rose up against his welfare-state approach to homelessness and housing generally, when he was a municipal politician. He was resoundingly defeated when he ran for mayor, as the film briefly shows.

But NDP strategists loved the drama, and little wonder, the portion spent on Mr. Layton’s federal legacy is a hagiography, and given how recent many of the events it portrays are, it was an unpaid political advertisement. For example, the biopic offered no hint of his deplorable play for sovereigntist votes by offering Quebec more seats than its population warrants in any redistribution. It was political cynicism at its worst, but Mr. Layton knew what he was doing; it was a tactic to win over voters from the Bloc Québécois, which he succeeded in doing, at least temporarily. The recent defection of one NDP MP to the Bloc suggests the party may regret the strategy in the fullness of time.

As I wrote last week, I think the idea that it was too soon to do a movie about Jack Layton is inherently flawed (and a bit silly). I’m not sure, for instance, if the Globe editorial board would have said it was too soon for The Deal (or its two follow-ups). (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen The Deal. I raise it not to comment on its quality, only its existence.)

The Globe is on more reasonable footing when it argues about what kind of movie Jack turned out to be. Essentially, it seems to me, the editorial board is arguing for a more political movie: a more thorough and thoughtful look at his political career. That’s a fair point. The movie could have, for instance, referenced his suggestion in 2004 that Paul Martin was responsible for the deaths of homeless people (and his subsequent regret about that comment) or the decision to support the Liberal budget in 2005 or the decision to bring down the Liberal government later that year (and the criticism that drew) or the attempted coalition in 2008 (and the controversy that created). It could have explored in detail what led up to the 2011 campaign and then how that breakthrough was executed. That movie might’ve had to be a bit longer, but I would have been very interested to see it. (John Doyle makes a good argument that the political content was far too over-simplified.)

But then that, I think, is actually an argument for more movies about politics, not less: or at least more politically focused movies. A movie probably isn’t made about Jack Layton if his political career doesn’t become a grand human drama that many people found captivating, or at least more interesting than they might otherwise have considered politics to be. And, in that regard, it’s probably not surprising that the movie ended up being written the way it was. If there’s a lost opportunity here, it might be in that the movie wasn’t more focused on the political machinations of its hero’s life and career. Regardless of how his myth might have developed over the next 25 years, I would argue, his career as punctuated by the events of 2011 is worthy of a dramatic rendering: regardless of how you feel about the man, it is an interesting story about politics.

We could probably stand to have more such movies (something on the Martin-Chretien wars, perhaps?). We could just generally benefit from a wider and more varied airing of politics and political stories in general. And any impulse that such subjects are not to be broached around the national dinner table should be overcome.