Review: CBC's 'Jack' is an uncritical valentine to the late NDP leader Special

Posted Mar 5, 2013 by Jeff Cottrill
Is it too soon for a TV movie about Jack Layton? Yes – but the reason has nothing to do with sensitivity about the Canadian political leader's relatively recent passing. It's more about balance: nobody's ready for a fully objective depiction yet.
Jack Layton (played by Rick Roberts) deals with the press in the upcoming CBC biopic  Jack .
Jack Layton (played by Rick Roberts) deals with the press in the upcoming CBC biopic "Jack".
CBC Media Centre
Jack, which airs on CBC this Sunday night, is a well-meaning little movie about a man who made a difference. It caters heavily to Layton's biggest supporters and fans. It's entertaining enough for Canadians who want to relive the New Democratic Party's 2011 election triumph (when it became the federal opposition for the first time) while learning the basics of Layton's professional and personal life over his last twenty-six years. But don't expect to come away with a newly enlightened, more complex view of Layton, as a man or as a politician. And definitely don't expect it to dish any dirt either. It's an unashamed love letter to Layton, albeit with mild pretensions to docudrama.
Starring character actor Rick Roberts as the beloved NDP leader, Jack traces Layton's roots as a Toronto city councillor in the mid-1980s, when he's already well ahead of the curve on such issues as AIDS, women's rights and the homeless. Enter his soulmate, Olivia Chow (Sook-Yin Lee), a school trustee whom he impresses with his genuine compassion for the underdog. The two form a strong marital and political team over the years as Layton rises in recognition and power, eventually winning the NDP leadership in 2003.
As a framing device, Andrew Wreggitt's screenplay also depicts Layton's journey through the 2011 election campaign, providing exposition in real news footage and private conferences by the NDP election team. The tone becomes more sentimental during the later scenes, focusing on the bravely optimistic and cheerful face Layton puts on while facing a hip fracture and his rapid physical decline from cancer. Director Jeff Woolnough throws in plenty of slow-motion shots of Layton looking triumphant and heroic, sometimes hoisting his cane in the air, accompanied by John Williamsian fanfare music.
To be fair, the movie's just trying to give us what we want. Not even two years have passed since Layton's death, and much of the Canadian public has very fond memories of him. He went out on a high note, not just with the NDP standing but also with his famous “Love is better than anger” press statement. Many of us are still grieving for a rare politician who actually seemed to want to change things for the better. And as a quickly-produced CBC production with a relatively limited budget and input from the real-life Olivia Chow, it's hardly the stuff of a daring exposé.
For these reasons, it would be silly to expect Jack to be the CanPoli equivalent of Raging Bull, or even Milk. The most damning side we see of Layton's personality is that he's a bit of a ham. Put an acoustic guitar in his hands and you're trapped with his coffeehouse-open-mic rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” or The Parachute Club's “Rise Up”. An early moment – actually his “meet cute” scene with Chow – briefly shows the young Layton bombing at stand-up comedy while emceeing a fundraising auction.
The irony is that while the movie works hard to present Layton as a great guy with a strong social conscience and no major personality flaws, you don't really get to know him. The viewer is kept at a small but certain distance, watching his courtship of Chow and his political rise in snapshots and bursts. You don't get much of a sense of how Layton has come to espouse his progressive values, nor why he thinks politics is the best vehicle with which to promote them. “Absolute idealism. I learned it from Hegel,” he explains to a colleague in Toronto City Hall. That's as close to a psychological explanation as you get.
It's hard to identify with the cinematic Layton deeply when he betrays so few ordinary human weaknesses. Doesn't the man ever get angry? Doesn't he have his own stingy or selfish moments in private? Doesn't he ever doubt himself, even for a second? Apparently not – the film never lets you forget how he overcomes impossible odds with courage and confidence, nor how he treats every human being as a respected equal. His stubbornness is portrayed as a virtue, showing how he never backs down even when he's alienated from the popular opinion (like objecting to Skydome's construction). Even his political opponents can't help lovin' the guy; a Conservative Party staffer (played by Being Erica's Erin Karpluk) is as grief-stricken over Layton's illness as any of his loved ones.
This is not in any way a criticism of Roberts' performance, which is very good. While the eerily uncanny makeup job is a huge help, Roberts fills his Layton with energy, likeability and humility, making him more interesting than Wreggitt's often one-note dialogue can accomplish. Lee also does a good job, playing Chow with compassion, patience and a sense of humour, and there's quirky chemistry at work between her and Roberts' Layton. But Chow's mother (Diana Ha) is played for laughs as a standard grumpy in-law, a sitcom nemesis who objects to Layton's scruffy clothes and hair until she predictably grows to love him. And Layton's sister Nancy (Victoria Snow) just seems tacked on, a thankless, underwritten role.
Part rom-com, part political biography and part hero-worship, Jack ends up being a lightweight homage to a man who made a big mark in Canadian politics. That may be no problem for viewers who loved Jack Layton and want to celebrate his legacy without any critical input. And maybe it's the best we can get at this early stage. Those looking for a more complete depiction will have to wait a few years for somebody to publish an unauthorized biography.
Jack airs on CBC Television on Sunday, March 10 at 8:00 p.m. (8:30 in Newfoundland).