The CBC Blew Jack Layton’s Biopic, Big Time

After watching “Jack,” the biopic of Jack Layton broadcast on Sunday night on the CBC, I realize once again why CBC is such a mediocre television network. It should stick to what it does best: news, current events, Evan Solomon, Rick Mercer and broadcasting “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Every time this made-for-TV movie got rolling, picked up a bit of steam, had a bit of momentum, CBC would interrupt the flow and the story with annoying ads for Rogers wireless products or AXE deodorant.

This was supposedly CBC’s version of “must see TV”.

This was a film about a good politician who, for a brief time, caught political lightning in a bottle. And transformed a third-place loser into the Official Opposition. It is a great story of politics and political smarts and courage.

CBC, the least you could have done, was have the show sponsored by a few corporate heavyweights and limited ads to the beginning, middle and end of the show. This was not some third-rate American TV sitcom. You could have broadcast this smarter.

But I digress. (Sorry about the anti-CBC rant. I have to get back on my pro-Canuck happy pills.)

As to the TV film itself: “Jack” focused on NDP Leader Jack Layton’s amazing 2011 federal election campaign, in which against all odds and the pundits’ predictions, Layton — played by Rick Roberts — led the “Orange Crush” NDP to a thrilling historic political breakthrough in Quebec and a second place finish, ahead of the Liberals.

The film also depicted Layton’s very warm and close relationship with his spouse and political and life partner, Olivia Chow, and his heroic battle with cancer during this penultimate campaign.

There were a few nice touches. I thought Sook-Yin Lee was excellent as Olivia Chow. She came across as a smart, funny, witty, politically astute, very devoted to her mother and, of course, to Jack.

In real life, Jack and Olivia supposedly had a very loving relationship. In the TV film, there was a very brief scene of Jack and Olivia in bed, which seemed very natural.

But the film ultimately failed because of a few glaring defects.

Rick Roberts was terribly miscast as Jack Layton. Physically, Roberts is too tall, and too baby-faced. He made the tough, street fighting Jack Layton, look like a tall, gangly, always sweet and slightly goofy Disney comic character. Roberts reminded me of Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.” The Jack Layton role called for a more macho, mustached, shorter Tom Cruise-like character. Part fighter. Part salesman.

Jack Layton in real life had rough edges and flaws. Those made him an interesting person and a compelling politician. As a city council man, he was arrogant, full of himself, and, to some voters, extremely unlikable. At times he came across as a smarmy used car salesman. That was one of Layton’s major problems. To many Toronto voters, he appeared untrustworthy. Recall Layton lost by a huge margin to June Rowlands in the 1991 Toronto mayoral race. And June Rowlands was one of the most mediocre Toronto politicians and mayors in the city’s history.

This film should have shown Jack Layton in his early political career, warts and all. It should have exposed his flaws — even his alleged arrest in a Toronto massage parlour in the 90s. Then his incredible, though brief, transformation into the most successful federal NDP politician in history would have been more dramatic, thrilling and real. And authentic.

The film sanitized Jack Layton. He was sweetness and light and Mr. Positive at the beginning. He was canonized at the end. As a result, the film lacked conflict. It lacked resolution. It lacked honesty. It failed to show Layton struggling and fighting to overcome obstacles, and his own personality defects, thus making his ultimate success, that much sweeter. Even the portrayal of the thrilling 2011 election campaign lacked tension and drama when in reality, the actual campaign was a wild and exciting ride.

In short, by sanitizing and canonizing Jack Layton, the TV film did a disservice to the man. And it was mediocre TV.

Sadly a missed opportunity for CBC.

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