'Run This Town': Film Review

Courtesy of Oscilloscope/Quiver Distribution
An involving but stretched-thin journo procedural.
3/6/2020

Ricky Tollman's feature debut watches a fledgling reporter trying to get the scoop that will destroy Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

An involving and ambitious fictionalized look at Rob Ford's downfall that is far from satisfied with gawking at that Toronto trainwreck, Ricky Tollman's Run This Town also intends to make points about racism and sexual harassment; to lament the slow-motion death of journalism; and to give voice to a generation of young adults who've been maligned by the oldsters who, as the movie sees it, made them the way they are. The feature debut for Tollman (whose executive producers include J.C. Chandor), it's a self-consciously thwarted All the President's Men whose strong air of self-pity may lead some viewers to go easy on certain failings: Like Ford, the crack-smoking boor who convinced millions of voters to love him, it knows perfection isn't an option, so it doesn't strain to iron out its quirks.

Ben Platt plays the oddly named Bram, a recent hire at a newspaper that, surprisingly, isn't fictional. (Surprising because few outlets would embrace being depicted as washed-up papers that rely more and more on pandering listicles.) Despite having shown promise in college (several references are made to the undergraduate award he won), Bram is assigned at The Record to churn out pieces about the top 10 hot dogs in town, or coffee shops, or whatever. After a year, he's increasingly vocal about his impatience to be put on an actual reporting beat.

Though early scenes observe Bram in both moments of douchey pushiness and cringey punsmanship, it's clear that on some level Tollman likes the dude, and shares the character's sense that the world isn't being nice enough to him. What the film isn't doing is what some claimed when the production was announced: Tollman hasn't rewritten the Ford scandal to excise the part female journalists played and suggest a lone male reporter brought the mayor to account by himself. In fact, when they take a step back from the pic, viewers will realize that this entitled white male actually plays no part at all in Ford's downfall; he only tries to, and his efforts are clumsy despite their sincerity. That reality is underlined by a closing scene in which Bram defends his generation against negative stereotypes: Bram isn't shy about wanting his participation ribbon, when really he should just be thrilled about being allowed to participate in paid journalism in 2013, ribbon or no.

While chronicling Bram's dogged but largely ineffectual attempts to get evidence of Ford's drug use, the movie also looks at the young professionals tasked with enabling the substance-abusing mayor, played by Damian Lewis. There's his Special Assistant, Kamal (Mena Massoud), who overlooks many sins because he so admires the politician's willingness to go out personally to solve constituents' problems. Kamal never complains that his boss thinks his name is "Camel," or that, while exploiting local anti-immigrant sentiment, he behaves as if his underling is "one of the good ones."

Kamal accepts mistreatment that is more pervasive but less egregious than that suffered by Nina Dobrev's Ashley. Staggering drunkenly into the office one night with an entourage of partying sleazebags, Ford gropes Ashley for all to see and makes lewd comments. Only now does the young woman choose to stop ignoring other credible reports of his sexual harassment, deciding to help Bram (and maybe others) get the evidence they need for stories about Ford's drug use.

Tollman's often engaging script takes a couple of uncomfortable lurches, as when it leaps from the start of Bram's investigation to the point at which local police detectives (led by Gil Bellows' Detective Lowey) start interviewing people about a video showing Ford smoking crack with local youths. The screenplay also fails to convince on some fronts — for instance, newsroom monologues in which Bram's embittered or cynical superiors lash out as if encapsulating all the self-loathing generated in a decade or so of journalistic decline.

For some, the film's most distracting element will be the fat suit worn by Lewis, which makes Mayor Ford look a bit like Fat Bastard of the Austin Powers franchise. But there's an empathetic performance buried under all that latex, one that understands how a good-ol'-boy politician, faced with the end of his career, might be most worried about the prospect that he'll no longer be allowed to coach youth sports leagues.

A movie that narrowed its focus, playing this penny-ante potentate against a green reporter in a catastrophe-hit industry, would likely have fared better than one grasping at so many aspects of Millennial frustration. But Run This Town is true to its protagonist's self-centeredness, caring less about history or journalism than a generation's sense that they've been screwed. To which several older groups of viewers will reply, "Welcome to the club, kid."

Production companies: Raised By Wolves, JoBro Productions
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Cast: Ben Platt, Mena Massoud, Damian Lewis, Nina Dobrev, Scott Speedman, Jennifer Ehle, Gil Bellows
Director-screenwriter: Ricky Tollman
Producers: Jonathan Bronfman, Randy Manis, Ricky Tollman
Executive producers: J.C. Chandor, Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Berry Meyerowitz, Jeff Sackman
Director of photography: Nick Haight
Production designer: Chris Crane
Costume designer: Hanna Puley
Editor: Sandy Pereira
Composers: Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Adrian Younge
Casting director: Jonathan Oliveira

Rated R, 98 minutes