With a film like Jack, differentiating between context and content can be difficult. The context, of course, is that a well-liked Canadian political leader brought his party to an historic level of success before unexpectedly passing away. Jack Layton’s death was met with a remarkable degree of public mourning, and Jack is a film meant to celebrate Layton’s life and accomplishments, with his widow (and still active politician) Olivia Chow helping to publicize the film and verify its accuracy.
Yet no amount of context can change the fact that Jack is a hackneyed, over-simplified, and sentimentalized account of Jack Layton’s life. In an interview with the Toronto Standard last week, Laszlo Barna, the producer and driving force behind the project, claimed that “If we’re deifying, then we’ve failed as a movie,” and in saying so, he ironically pinpointed a large problem with the film. As written by Andrew Wreggit and played by Rick Roberts, Jack Layton isn’t so much a human being as a personification of populist charm and unflappable optimism, stymied only by his own bodily limitations and the narrow-mindedness of others.
The film is an amalgam of movie-of-the-week clichés with a noticeable influence of HBO’s recent political films, such as the Sarah Palin expose Game Change or the 2008 financial crisis story Too Big To Fail. Like those HBO films, Jack strives for a degree of verisimilitude with recent political events: in this case, the New Democratic Party’s historic 2011 federal election campaign, in which Layton lead the party to Official Opposition status for the first time. Jack evokes memories of that election, not even two years old, via footage of Chantal Hébert and Andrew Coyne on CBC News, prosthetics for actor Rick Roberts that are more creepy than realistic, and the casting of recognizable Canadian actors in the roles of public figures (most notably, Olivia Chow is portrayed by CBC’s in-house renaissance woman Sook-Yin Lee).
Unlike those HBO films. Jack doesn’t offer an intriguing behind-the-scenes look into the mechanics of a federal election campaign. Instead, we get NDP staffers reiterating, ad nauseum, that the odds are stacked against them and they have to find a way to differentiate themselves from the Liberals and Conservatives. Jack uses the election campaign (which Layton fought while recovering from hip surgery) as a framing device for a love story between him and Olivia Chow over a time span that corresponds with various events from Layton’s political career, including a campaign for AIDS awareness in 1985, his failed Toronto mayoral campaign in 1991, and his rise to the leadership of the NDP in the early 00s.
The scenes about Layton and Chow are marked by the same problems as the rest of the film. They’re awkwardly written, always trying to hide their limited production value (Winnipeg doubles as Toronto for most of the film), and trying too hard to portray Layton as the most altruistic man in politics. The film barely mentions any of the NDP’s actual policies, which is hardly surprising: director Jeff Woolnaugh’s last project was a CBC mini-series about the life of right-wing blowhard Don Cherry. Jack Layton was always more popular as a public figure than either his party or his political opinions. Jack presents the actual Layton as an extension of his folksy public persona. To use an expression that’s become a cliché when talking about Layton, he was the type of guy you could have a beer with, even if you didn’t vote for him.
The real Jack Layton, however, was a political science professor, a life-long politician, the son of a Conservative cabinet minister, and someone who never lived outside the urban centres of Montreal and Toronto. Exploring the gulf between his populist persona and the facts of his life may have made for a story worthy of a feature film. Exploring the political mechanics that allowed the NDP to crush the Liberals in 2011 might have also worked (a satire about Michael Ignatieff’s doomed career in Canadian politics could be very funny). But any remotely interesting possibility for the film is ignored in favour of a banal success story. Despite sharing a title with an ill-fated collaboration between Robin Williams and Francis Ford Coppola, the most apt comparison for Jack is probably The Terry Fox Story, a mediocre HBO film from 1983 that most Canadians have seen in school at one point or another. The CBC may not have made a very good film, but if the NDP cements its place as one of Canada’s major political parties, Jack may very well become a staple of high school social studies classes across the nation.
Jack airs this Sunday, March 10 at 8 p.m. on CBC.
Alan Jones is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Exclaim!, AV Club Toronto, and Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv