SXSW 2019: RUN THIS TOWN is (Secretly) the Rob Ford Story Through a Millennial Lens

A modern, youthful spin on the ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN formula

There’s nothing quite like that exclusive-to-film festivals feeling of stumbling off the street into a movie theater to see a movie you know absolutely nothing about, experiencing its world premiere, and discovering that it is (somewhat secretly) about a rather explosive and infamous story known the world over but never yet told as a feature length narrative.

Intentionally burying the lede that your youthful journalistic thriller featuring shockingly young political aids and aspiring bloggers-come-investigative reporters is actually a Rob Ford movie is a bold choice even at a festival like SXSW. None of the film’s descriptions in the festival guide reveal that this is what the film is about. I almost feel like I’m spoiling something here by revealing it now. But the movie makes it known fairly early on, despite keeping the on screen appearance of Ford himself (Damian Lewis in makeup and fat suit so over the top it almost takes you out of the movie) until the second act. Perhaps this was all done in such a bold way because while this is set in Rob Ford’s orbit, he’s a distant figure in the actual narrative. Run This Town is about the millennial generation and the young adults who were wrapped up in Ford’s downfall.

There’s a youthful and energetic vibe here which evokes Margin Call (an apt comparison as Margin Call director J.C. Chandor is listed as an executive producer here) with a little bit of quicker-than-you-can-follow dialog evoking an aspirational Sorkin. Smart characters say smart things quickly and it takes a little while to fall into their rhythm and catch up to what they are getting at. All that said, the film never quite reaches the heights of the films it reveres. I find this very forgivable when the filmmaker is so ambitious and when this is a first film coming from someone who (at least by appearance) is still in his twenties.

It’s all about youth, actually. For millennials, All The President’s Men isn’t going to play out the same way that it did in the 1970s. Bram (Ben Platt) is fresh out of college and lands a real journalism job but soon finds himself churning out listicles and finding any real scoops to be far outside his reach. A product of privilege, Bram is aware of his social standing but still dreaming for more. He thinks he’s found it when he gets a lead on a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. Mena Massoud (our future Aladdin, apparently) plays Ford’s special assistant and handler [whose name I can’t find online] who finds he’s great at what he does but eventually comes to question the righteousness of his cause. Nina Dobrev plays Ashley, a young lawyer working on Ford’s communication team who experiences sexual harassment at the hands of Ford and must decide what her course of action will be. As each of these main characters’ threads play out they’ll have to weigh the consequences representative of their plight in terms of a proto-#MeToo harassment claim, and a newspaper in decline trying to scoop their web-based news competitors. There’s a lot going on and the film makes sure to remain thrilling and somewhat unpredictable, even though the final chapter of Mayor Ford’s story is well known to us. One gets saddened and finds more to reflect on in Run This Town when considering that Ford’s downfall didn’t prevent another out of control, crass, belligerent, and abusive demagogue from rising to power just a short couple of years later.

Run This Town says a lot. It’s not always subtle and is always propulsive. It’s a Rob Ford story made by, for, and about the Millennial generation. Writer/Director Ricky Tollman has the potential for great things and does a solid job here if not entirely sticking the landing. Some will be turned off by Ford’s appearance and characterization, and some will roll their eyes at the somewhat righteous depictions of Millenials. But Tollman and his characters are speaking their mind regardless.

And I’m Out.

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