Questionable journalism and problematic civil service collide in “Run This Town,” writer-director Ricky Tollman’s dramatization of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s final year in office.
Ben Platt plays a milquetoast stand-in for the actual journalists who exposed Ford’s transgressions in a film that collects too many characters and too few clear ideas on how to treat — or connect — the concentric circles around misbehaving politicians, their protectors or enablers, and members of the would-be media trying to do their job in an increasingly inhospitable economic climate.
Platt plays Bram Shriver, a recent college graduate and award-winning student journalist who lands an entry-level job at The Record, a print and online publication in Toronto. While his parents fret over his finances, Bram bemoans the listicle grunt work assigned by David (Scott Speedman), his editor, while gingerly seeking challenges doled out to senior reporters.
After a layoff wipes out most of the staff, Bram intercepts a call from a mysterious man claiming to possess incriminating video footage of Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis) smocking crack cocaine. Bram successfully petitions David for an opportunity to pitch his story to Judith (Jennifer Ehle), the disapproving editor-in-chief, and she reluctantly agrees to let him pursue it.
In the meantime, Ford is being closely watched and carefully managed by Kamal Arafa (Mena Massoud, “Aladdin”), a “special assistant to the mayor” — more accurately, a schedule keeper, spin doctor and sometimes babysitter for the flamboyant and gaffe-prone politician. His gift for deflection is peerless when it comes to damage control, but Kamal slowly begins to question what he’s doing, and why, after Ford’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, leading to a physical confrontation with one campaign staffer and an incident of sexual harassment with another named Ashley (Nina Dobrev). Nevertheless, Kamal continues to fight on behalf of Ford in the sincere belief that their campaign is accomplishing good things, even as the mayor embraces increasingly divisive, even racist, policies.
In the absence of responses from his onetime source, Bram soldiers on to little avail, even as Ashley reaches out to confess her experiences with Ford — damaging information, if not the literal smoking crack pipe his editors are waiting for. But the young journalist discovers just how inexperienced he truly is after brokering a tentative deal for the promised footage while reporters at a competing paper scoop him and print the information he hoped would become his big break.
In his debut feature, Tollman’s gifts as writer and director seem concentrated in specific moments of this sorta-based-on-true-events film, such as the opening sequence where Kamal and Ford’s twentysomething staff vigorously debate the definition of “office” in relation to line-item campaign spending, and another where Ford thrashes through his staff, harassing Ashley and unsettling the whole team’s confidence in one destructive swoop. You may notice that neither scene mentions Bram Shriver, the would-be main character of the story, a fictionalized proxy witnessing Ford’s implosion from a privileged but mostly pointless vantage point.
Tollman’s skill at depicting the moral quandaries facing politicians’ inner circles — wrestling with what’s accomplished versus what it costs, and so on — unfortunately does not extend to his treatment of media organizations jeopardized by low circulation numbers that eventually cannibalize substantial reporting in favor of flashy, easily digestible content. It doesn’t help that Bram never accomplishes anything throughout the movie, and Platt portrays him as a mumbling neophyte without a shred of common sense (much less even basic journalistic training that earned him accolades in college).
Exactly why the filmmaker chose this character as a proxy for the audience makes even less sense, given the fact that there actually were three reporters (including award-winning journalist Robyn Doolittle) who saw the real video and broke the story but are nowhere to be found in the film.
As Ford, Lewis is virtually unrecognizable in a fat suit and pretty seamless make-up; since he’s playing a real-life politician possessed of so many fascinating juxtapositions, though, it would have been interesting to explore that ambiguity more with an actor who could access a bit more charm.
Dobrev commits to Ashley even as she’s on the receiving end of Ford’s repugnant treatment, though it’s mostly Massoud who provides the film’s moral center. He exudes the exact right kind of charisma for a guy who’s supposed to be charming, distantly idealistic and kind of horrifyingly good at deflecting and putting opponents on the defense when his candidate says or does something wrong.
In a time when scandals like the late Ford’s feel increasingly commonplace, there’s much to explore here that’s both relevant and revelatory, whether we’re talking about sexual harassment by powerful men, their general privilege, the community and coalition of individuals who protect and empower them, or the responsibility — and increasing challenge — of news organizations to chronicle and expose this behavior without normalizing it. Unfortunately, by touching on all of these issues, “Run This Town” gives none of them enough emphasis or substance.
Tollman’s promise as a writer and director is evident, but not unlike his ambitious and untested protagonist, an editor might be what he needs most, whether or not he knows it.