Politics Chatter
Politics Chatter

POLITICS CHATTER: Pondering the wisdom of casting Jack Layton as a saint in CBC TV’s upcoming biopic “Jack”

Rick Roberts plays Jack Layton, while Sook-Yin Lee takes the part of Olivia Chow in the made-for-TV movie "Jack"

Politics Chatter by contributing editor Mark Bourrie is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter @IsotelusRex.

Well, all we need is the blessing of the next Pope, and Jack Layton will officially become a saint.

The CBC has worked hard to fast-track the canonization. On March 10, TV viewers will forgo the delights of NetFlix and TLC’s Gypsy Sisters, to sit, enthralled, in front of the magic box, watching a biopic called JACK, the story of Jack Layton’s rise to greatness.

The makers of Jack are having an invitation-only launch at the Mayfair on March 5. If you’re really lucky, you can score an invitation to the opening at the downtown Winnipeg IMAX two days later. The IMAX should be a delight. You’ll feel like you were there.

Which, for me, is sort of true. I was there through Layton’s career on the Hill. Jack Layton scolded me every time we talked. I was not impressed by him as a speaker or parliamentarian, but I was shocked when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had expected him to beat it — several friends and acquaintances did manage to do that — so it was a double, saddening shock when the disease killed him.

Layton’s career in politics was quite tragic. He had been an obstructionist Toronto councillor. He’d lost when he ran for mayor. He also failed the first time he tried to win a seat in parliament. But he kept at it, won Toronto Danforth and his party’s leadership.

In two elections, he had failed to catch on with the people. There was something about him, a sort of Snidely Whiplash quality. He was a third-generation politician (his father was a Tory cabinet minister in Joe Clark’s government, his grandfather was a minister in the corrupt, quasi-fascist regime of Maurice Duplessis).

Unlike, say, Ed Broadbent, Layton didn’t come across as a man of the people, especially when he campaigned outside Toronto.

But he was better that the two previous NDP leaders, the moderately capable Alexa McDonough and the disastrous, incapable Audrey McLaughlin.

We’ll never know whether it was the cane or the man who made the breakthrough in Quebec in the last federal election. I argued in this space that Layton gambled the country to win those Quebec seats in what I saw as an appalling example of pandering and opportunism. Pundits ignore the fact that the NDP under Layton and his predecessors lost the Prairie populist vote. The prairie Social Gospel folks who sent Tommy Douglas to Ottawa haven’t voted NDP in a generation. Layton’s success was limited to a few big cities and Quebec, and we’ll find out in 2015 if there’s any permanence to it.

That’s one objection I have to this movie. While the tragic story of Layton’s disease and death and the breaking up of one of the great political teams on the Hill is compelling, I worry that the makers of this movie might have misunderstood the last election. As for his career in municipal politics, it was nothing worth making a movie about.

It is too early to write or film a political and historical obituary of Jack Layton’s federal career.

JACK stars Rick Roberts (Still, Three Days to Jonestown, This Is Wonderland) as Jack Layton; Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus, Year of the Carnivore) as Olivia Chow; Wendy Crewson (Revenge, 24, Airforce One) as Anne McGrath; Erin Karpluk (Being Erica) as Alison; Zachary Bennett (Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion, Road to Avonlea) as Brad Lavigne; Joel Keller (CybergeddonBlue Murder) as Karl Belanger; Judah Katz (Cra$h & Burn, Canada Russia 72) as Brian Topp; Victoria Snow (Cra$h & Burn)as Nancy Layton; and Diana Ha (The X-Files) as Layton’s mother-in-law.

The producers ignored my suggestions to cast George Clooney and Jack Black as investigative reporters Steve Maher and Glen McGregor, and Gordon Pinsent’s thumbs as CBC blogger Kady O’Malley.

They also turned down my idea to give the coveted role of Stephen Harper to Jack Nicholson (Chinatown, The Shining), or have Mike Smith (Trailer Park Boys, Cart Boy) play Bob Rae, Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) play Sid Ryan, and David Suzuki play Old Blind Tom, who was miraculously healed at Layton’s funeral.

The movie was to be called Simple Jack, to honour Layton’s commitment to the common man. A quick Google search, however, showed that title was already taken.

Fittingly, taxpayers underwrote a lot of the cost of this film. Produced by Halifax movie-makers Pier 21 Films Ltd. and Eagle Vision Inc. in association with CBC, the producers got money from the Canada Media Fund; Manitoba Film and Music; the Manitoba Film & Video Production Tax Credit; the Canadian Film and Video Production Tax Credit; and the Ontario Film and Television Tax Credits.

That, and the movie itself, should go down well with Liberals and Tories. The movie comes out just as the Liberals are about to pick their new messiah and the Tories carve out the new federal budget. Obviously the CBC isn’t too concerned about a Tory backlash, perhaps because word is out that their next big flick, Dief and Olive, is in development.

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