Bold political thriller “Run This Town” speaks to millennials and Gen Z’s entering the workforce, posing complex questions about integrity and corruption
Originally published on Elements of Madness
Although we’re just two months into the new year, 2020 has already seen the landmark trials of two immensely powerful figures who were both accused of abusing their power in different ways: President Donald Trump, who was acquitted by the U.S. Senate at the conclusion of his impeachment trial, and former film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted of rape and sexual assault in late February. While public response to these trials and their outcomes is sharply divided, such power scandals are always sure to hook a massive audience. These stories bring followers not only to news outlets, but to the movies as well. The recent film Bombshell (2019), for example, revisited the 2016 sexual harassment scandal at Fox News. This week, another political scandal will play out on the big screen with Ricky Tollman’s feature directorial debut, Run This Town. Packed with suspense from start to finish, Run This Town tells the story of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who was exposed for drug abuse in 2013. Run This Town reimagines the scandal through the eyes of a group of ambitious young adults at the start of their careers.
Run This Town opens in 2012 Toronto, painting the city as a high-tech Neverland where smart, savvy, and ambitious young people keep the city running with their tireless overtime hours. Bram (Ben Platt), a recent graduate and award-winning student journalist, has just landed his first gig as a list-writer for a local newspaper. Hungry for more high-profile stories, Bram eagerly jumps at a lead that might involve exposing the mayor. Kamal (Mena Massoud) has jump-started his career with a job as personal assistant to the mayor. Although he takes serious issue with Ford’s morals, Kamal must protect the mayor’s public image for the sake of his own job security. Finally, there’s Ashley (Nina Dobrev), who, despite her hard-earned law degree, also works in the mayor’s office as an assistant. Although she gets less screen-time than the other characters, Ashley, too, faces an excruciating challenge as she tries to protect both her integrity and her career. As the film jumps back and forth between its three main players, each struggling to survive in a corrupt workplace, Run This Town effectively compares and contrasts its characters’ needs and ambitions. The movie asks its audience to re-evaluate their morals in light of the challenges facing young adults today such as rising rent, student loans, and an unforgiving job market.
For those who enjoy the fast-paced verbal whiplash of political movies and shows like The West Wing (1999-2006), Run This Town will not disappoint. The quick banter requires the audience to be on full alert in order to follow all the turns in the conversation. The dialogue is also peppered with references and lingo that situate the story in a particular time. Its vernacular appeals to the millennial generation as the characters argue over trigger warnings and ways to get more likes on Instagram. It also situates itself in time by emphasizing technology, particularly in its sound design. The score is embellished with the familiar clicks, swipes, and swooshes of smartphones. However, even for those who grew up in a world that demands constant multitasking on phones and laptops, there’s a lot going on in Run This Town. The movie is a sensory overload of quick cuts, overlapping dialogue, and sound effects that may or may not be a part of the story.
Run This Town is also burdened with unclear jumps back and forth in time, which create frame narratives sandwiched within each other. While nonlinear plots often make the most interesting movies, Tollman fails to provide clear markers to show when the story has moved forwards or backwards. There’s no change in lighting, no distinguishing physical change in the characters, and no telling line of dialogue to clue the audience in on the temporal shifts. The film certainly succeeds in creating suspense as its characters become increasingly involved in the mayor’s scandal, but it also requires a lot of mental strain on the audience’s part to keep all the narrative information straight. Since the movie focuses more on its characters’ lives than on the specific details of the scandal, it is helpful to go in with background knowledge about Rob Ford. For many, this thriller will require at least two viewings for a full sense of how all the details come together.
Run This Town is a unique experiment in perspective as it compares the journalist chasing a story, Bram, to the assistant trying to hide the story, Kamal. The comparison raises difficult questions for the audience to work through as they watch two characters with nearly opposite goals facing similar moral dilemmas. Platt and Massoud are excellent picks for their roles, nicely filling the shoes of career-hungry young men and adding subtle emotional depth to their dialogue to express the millennial generation’s frustration. It is disappointing, however, that Nina Dobrev’s character, Ashley, doesn’t get as much screen time, since her character is the most directly impacted by Ford’s actions. As the mostly male-centered drama unfolds, Ashley emerges as a frantic last-minute attempt to include a woman’s perspective. Ashley provides a necessary balance between the two men and deserves more time in the spotlight.
The remainder of the supporting cast handles their roles exquisitely, particularly Jennifer Ehle as the unforgiving editor at Bram’s newspaper. However, Damian Lewis goes a bit over the top in his caricature of the drunken, blunt Ford. Further, the movie’s makeup and effects teams completely butcher Lewis’s makeover, giving his character little to no chance of succeeding on screen. The Ford character looks like an unfinished special effects project and doesn’t seem fully human next to the rest of the cast. The makeup would have worked for a comedy, but it sticks out and ruins the tone of this serious drama.
Despite its flaws, Run This Town has a very clear goal, and it meets this goal by the end: to tell this story from the millennial perspective. It highlights the shared frustrations among millennials as they hurl themselves headfirst towards a workforce that is extremely difficult to enter and is run by an older generation that sees the world quite differently. Professionals from all generations must often put aside their personal morals for the sake of job security, and Run This Town sheds a very forgiving and sympathetic light on those who are forced to do so. Brimming with potential talking points, Run This Town is a movie that both younger and older audiences should see.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."