CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

Dan Brown

Starring Alan Alda as Jack Layton
June 4, 2004

Dan Brown
Dan Brown  

It's easy to make a list of movies that are about political campaigns in the United States. For starters, there's Bob Roberts, The Candidate, Primary Colors, The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Wag The Dog. If you expand the list to include those feature films that aren't specifically about campaigns but touch on U.S. politics in some way, you can also add the likes of Air Force One, The American President, Dave, Election and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. There have been many movies about American politics, and even a few great ones.

In Canada, however, there is little evidence of a similar tradition. It's true that two years ago the CBC aired Trudeau, a miniseries based on the life of the late prime minister, but that's about as close as this country has come to producing the Great Canadian Political Movie. Unlike Americans, Canadians don't seem to be interested in watching - or making - dramas about their leaders. In other words, it's more likely that this year's campaign will be turned into a Heritage Minute than a motion picture.

There are many reasons why this is the case. To begin with, Canadians are less willing to make the imaginative leap necessary to enjoy a movie about domestic politics. Where our neighbours to the south are willing to envision, say, Harrison Ford as the commander-in-chief, someone like Kiefer Sutherland would not be accepted in the role of prime minister.

"We just wouldn't buy it," says Kady O'Malley, a freelance reporter who covers Parliament Hill.

With the exception of Trudeau, O'Malley says that Canadians don't think of their politicians as glamorous - and are therefore not used to seeing them portrayed by glamorous performers.

"We are perfectly happy with one nebbishy looking wonk versus another nebbishy looking wonk," she explains. "We prefer politicians who let their ideas speak for them instead of their shirts and their suits. I think that translates into making it very difficult to come up with a Canadian version of The West Wing."

O'Malley adds that Canadian elections are more complex since they are fought on actual issues, like health care, which means they are much harder to dramatize. American campaigns, on the other hand, are often based on the personalities of the candidates; John Kerry's bid for the White House, for instance, has been built on his status as a war hero rather any specific policy the Democrat is proposing.

This explains why there isn't a huge market of film consumers who are hungering for a Canadian election drama. But what about the people who make films in this country? Aren't they interested in Canadian politics?

"American filmmakers are far more political than Canadian filmmakers. Canadian filmmakers tend to be, I think, apolitical," says Andrew Clark, the author of Stand And Deliver, a history of Canadian comedy.

Clark believes that part of this reluctance to tackle politics may stem from the fact that Canadian filmmakers get a large portion of their funding from government agencies. This may make them uneasy proposing projects that cast Ottawa in a negative light.

Clark points out that a film like Bob Roberts - which depicts Republicans as evil, not merely bad - was made by a very politically motivated filmmaker. The reason it got made in the first place is because Tim Robbins used his star power to make a point. Canadian directors and producers have other concerns, Clark says.

"I think the reality is that Canadian filmmakers are not politically engaged. They're worried about where their next meal is going to come from, not who's prime minister."

And simple economics of moviemaking may also be a deterrent. Producing a feature about a pivotal event in Canada's history, like a landmark election, would be an expensive proposition.

"We've never made a good movie about Louis Riel, we've never made a good movie about the conscription crisis, we never made a good movie about the Winnipeg general strike, and on and on. So I just think that there's a reluctance to handle those kinds of issues," he says.

Which isn't to say that Canadians have no interest in politics. Canadian audiences just seem to prefer a different format from the Hollywood blockbuster.

"We're more down and dirty and I think the documentary captures that more," says O'Malley, who notes that American political events - even something as simple as a news conferences - are more staged, which makes them easier to adapt to the big screen. Canadian politics, meanwhile, are more freewheeling.

"We like the reality. We like the awkward silences, we like the jostling," she says. "It would be very difficult to convince Canadians to accept a substitute for reality in terms of analyzing an election." O'Malley predicts that half a dozen great documentaries - equivalent to the classic U.S. doc The War Room - could emerge after this year's federal vote.

But what if the unlikely were to happen? What if some brave director decided to make a movie out of the current election? Who would get cast in the lead roles?

In O'Malley's view, someone like Paul Newman would be perfect to play Paul Martin. She picks Dave Foley for Stephen Harper, and a moustached Alan Alda for Jack Layton. Gilles Duceppe is harder, but she agrees that an actor like Saturday Night Live's Darryl Hammond might be able to pull it off.

Clark, who is more satire-minded, thinks Tommy Smothers would make a good Martin, Bill Pullman should be cast as Harper and Mr. Show alumnus David Cross - because he does earnestness well - would be suitable for Layton. As for Duceppe, he also picks a comic actor: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Past Columns
Dan Brown is news online's senior arts editor/reporter. A former editorial writer, copy editor and journalism instructor, Dan has degrees from three universities.

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