Recently the CBC aired a made for TV movie about the beloved, late NDP leader Jack Layton, simply titled Jack (not to be confused with the Robin Williams movie Jack, despite the CBC’s best efforts). There was some reasonable skepticism leading up to its airing, followed by a response that ran from politely negative to just plain negative. I wondered, could Jack be such a bad movie? How could you mess up a film about a man who inspired thousands to continue to publicly express their grief even a year after his death? I sat down to watch Jack and I can report that the movie was about as inspiring as a lukewarm bath.
It’s not like I expected Jack to be a political biopic on the level of Milk, with dramatic tension and solid character development but goddamn it! Couldn’t they have at least made something compelling? Jack Layton was a real man who championed a lot of great causes such as homelessness, the environment and the AIDS crisis. He was a living legend. But you wouldn’t know it because the movie isn’t really about any of those great things. In fact it’s barely about Jack Layton’s personal life, it’s about his political life. Do you know what Jack Layton was like as a child? Or how effective his policies actually were? Or whether or not he enjoyed doing the hip flip with Nardwuar? I’d like to see these things play out on the tiny screen, but Jack gets lost in its politics so don’t expect to find any entertainment value here.
For example, there’s a scene where the NDP is preparing for a debate, and Jack says something along the lines of: “Gilles Duceppe has a terrible record of absenteeism. I should say that he shouldn’t be Prime Minister because if the average Canadian doesn’t show up to work, he doesn’t get a promotion.” Once he says that, everyone loses their shit like it’s the battle scene at the end of 8 Mile. Then his supporters watch him say that line on television, again, and they all cheer and lose their shit even more. Then everybody talks about how he had the line of the night and more shit gets lost. This happens for three scenes. They spend more time on this line than the movie Up spent depicting a man’s entire life.
But even when they try to portray Jack’s human side it comes off looking forced and cheesy. There’s a scene where everyone around Mr. Layton is on their cell phones and iPads, so he picks up a guitar and softly strums the chords to “May the Circle Be Unbroken” but changes the lyrics to, “Ottawa is broken / We’re gonna fix it / By and by lord, by and by.” He pulls this trick again later in the movie, picking up his guitar and rewording The Parachute Club’s “Rise Up” on a tour bus, sparking a sing-along. Granted, in real life Jack Layton loved playing guitar and changing the words of songs and it was probably charming at the time. Does it work for movie Jack Layton? Not at all. Imagine if there was a Stephen Harper movie and they had a scene where he pulls out a guitar and sings a Nickelback song without much context. Wouldn’t that be awful? Unfortunately it goes both ways.
We all know Jack is going to lose his battle with cancer and it’s heartbreaking when it happens, but it’s barely the climax. The real climax of the movie happens when the NDP bus rolls up to Schwartz’s in Montreal and someone announces that the NDP have risen to second place in the national polls. Everyone celebrates and it’s so touching I actually almost cried (because at least this segment is actually shot and acted remarkably well) until I realized that they were celebrating being second place in an unofficial poll. This was a great achievement for the NDP in real life. As a scene in a movie, it’s about as effective as watching a rom-com where the boy overhears that his love interest likes him back—and then the credits roll.
Jack isn’t a bad film because it’s too soon for a political figure to be mythologized after his tragic death, but because the movie itself feels like they read Jack Layton’s Wikipedia page and pasted it on top of the screenplay of Forest Gump. There’s even a scene where Jack Layton loses a mayoral race and his wife says, “Like Mom always says, every disappointment is a gift. You just have to unwrap it.” This line was so forced that I paused the movie to unwrap my own disappointment. And guess what? I was still kind of disappointed. At this point, my friend who was watching the film with me actually got up and said, “Well, that’s it for me,” and left me to finish Jack on my own.
Good movies tend to depict a character or characters placed into a circumstance under which they are at great odds with the chaos of the universe. We watch to see whether they overcome those forces or whether they succumb to them. There was plenty of that man vs. world conflict in Jack Layton’s real life. But in this movie, it’s mostly background to the rise of the NDP. The final scene shows real life pictures of Jack Layton while he and Olivia Chow sing “You Are My Sunshine” together and it was the most effective scene in the movie. It was touching and real. It made me think that perhaps a documentary would have depicted Jack Layton’s life in a more effective way, rather than this hour and a half long film with TV commercial production values. Jack Layton, you deserve better.
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