What the Rob Ford movie Run This Town gets right — and what it gets wrong

Run This Town is a new Canadian film inspired by the time when Rob Ford was Toronto's mayor. We showed the film to reporters and politicians who remember Ford to get their review.

Those who worked and covered the Rob Ford saga tell us how the film stacks up

Reporters and colleagues who worked with and investigated Toronto mayor Rob Ford share their reactions to watching the film Run This Town. 3:46

Run This Town is not a movie about Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

In the film, British actor Damian Lewis plays the beleaguered mayor. But the focus is actually on Bram, a fictional journalism school graduate who'd rather be writing about politics than the listicles he's assigned. 

The film from writer-director Ricky Tollman uses a mixture of real and fictional characters to tell a story many Torontonians lived through.

Ford, a polarizing and populist leader who died of cancer in 2016, became internationally known for his drug and alcohol use while in office, largely due to a cellphone video that showed Ford smoking crack cocaine.

CBC News contacted reporters and colleagues who watched Run This Town and witnessed Ford's reign first-hand to see how the film stacks up. 

Former city councillor Joe Mihevc 

As a longtime city councillor, Joe Mihevc says the film focuses on Ford's salacious side but misses what attracted voters.

Former city councillor Joe Mihevc spent many years watching the rise of Ford and says the film doesn't capture his 'humanness'. (Eli Glasner/CBC)

While Mihevc was no fan of Ford's politics, he says the mayor wasn't mean-spirited to his staff, as portrayed in the movie. Mihevc says the Rob he knew was quite shy. 

"He would have been the guy who when he got into a room would have gone into the corner and been quiet and you would have had to approach him." 

Mihevc says Run This Town reduces Ford to his worst aspects. "There is the humanness of Rob that did not come out in that film."  

The former councillor sees the film as a missed opportunity to understand "how he was the right man for a political culture [built] on people's alienation."

Toronto Star investigative reporter Kevin Donovan

In the real world, it was Toronto Star reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle who first viewed the video of Ford smoking crack. But you won't find them in the new film. 

Investigate journalist Kevin Donovan was one of the first to view the video of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. He was impressed with the depiction of the politics in the film, but not how the reporters are portrayed. (Eli Glasner/CBC)

Instead Ben Platt plays the character Bram, who gets a tip when he answers a random phone call. 

"The first time I watched it I felt angry that they had taken that licence and erased what we did," Donovan says.  

He vividly remembers a Friday in April of 2013, sitting in the car with Doolittle, straining to watch a video playing on a cellphone. He was in the backseat, Doolittle was in the front. They insisted on watching the soon-to-be infamous video three times and then quickly began writing notes.

While the film doesn't recreate the actual video, Donovan says it gets the backroom politics "bang on." 

In the film, Mena Massoud appears as Kamal, the mayor's special assistant, part of a young cadre of municipal staff doing damage control. Donovan remembers being concerned with the young staffers and says: "I thought they should have stepped up and maybe things would have turned out a lot differently."

Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis) and his assistant Kamal (Mena Massoud) visit a constituent in a scene from the new film Run This Town. (Elevation Pictures)

As a journalist who spent months meeting with people in bars and coffee shops to track down the video, Donovan wasn't impressed with the way Run This Town portrays the media, with editors salivating over a potential spike in web traffic. 

Donovan is disappointed the audience will see an editor handing over money and saying: "Go buy some clicks." 

The investigative reporter stresses the Toronto Star never paid to see the video and says the film sends the wrong message. "The public will see the movie and think that that's all we do. We just wait for a phone call to come in and we're not doing the legwork."

Allison Smith, publisher of Politics Today 

Allison Smith was reporting on provincial politics in 2013 and 2014 and she remembers watching the pack of reporters chasing Rob Ford. She says the film gets some of the little details right, such as how reporters would reverse-engineer the mayor's social media to construct a daily schedule of events. 

Politics Today publisher Allison Smith says Robyn Doolittle's real story would have made for a better movie. (CBC)

One of her problems with Run This Town is how it replaced Doolittle. "Instead of focusing on a female journalist," Smith says, "a young male journalist becomes the protagonist of the film." 

She feels the movie would have been more interesting if it had followed Doolittle. "Why skew away from real life when you have such an amazing story?" 

Smith suggests one reason Doolittle may have been removed was that her non-fiction book Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story was also optioned for TV or film.

While Run This Town focuses on the millennial malaise of Bram and Kamal, Smith says Doolittle's story could have been a way to challenge the way female reporters are portrayed. "You see in lots of films where there's a female journalist and she ends up engaging in a flirtation or sex with a source and those are the type of representations we see of female journalists." 

Ricky Tollman, writer and director of Run This Town

Tollman says it would have been irresponsible to write the film using journalists' real names. He says there are a lot of reporters with integrity who worked on the Rob Ford story, but that is not his movie. 

Run This Town director Ricky Tollman, actor Nina Dobrev, actor Mena Massoud and producer Randy Manis pose at the red carpet opening of the film in Toronto on March 3. (CBC)

Tollman says part of his inspiration was seeing the frustration of his brother, who studied journalism and spent his time updating a news crawl for a 24-hour news channel. He saw the toll that had on him and his friends, and wanted to make a film about his peers who are trapped by those wheels of power.

For Tollman, Run This Town is really about the character Bram: someone who has privilege, but is powerless.

"This is a story about somebody who is not good at their job and thinks they deserve everything, thinks that just because they are there they should be awarded something." 

Run This Town opens in Toronto March 6 and in other parts of Canada March 13. 


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