by Ken Bakely
Moving drastically from character to character, setting to setting, and moment to moment, Ricky Tollman’s Run This Town is abuzz with activity and ideas. It contains admirable gusto and directorial skill, seeking to guide us through a complicated network of events. But the flipside of such complexities is that struggles to compartmentalize its rapid-fire dialogue and myriad of tonal qualities into something more cohesive or contained. In a fictionalized version of the events which led to the downfall of Rob Ford (Damian Lewis) as mayor of Toronto in 2013, Tollman chooses a myriad of approaches to develop the plot and the proceedings of the movie. From Kamal (Mena Massoud), a city hall special advisor whose job expands exponentially as nearly everything requires special advising; to Ashley (Nina Dobrev), another staffer who is subject to the mayor’s erratic and harassing behavior; to Bram (Ben Platt) a young journalist who tries to investigate Ford as his first major story, the film seeks to have something different to say about each character’s experiences and how they build a bigger picture. Yet there’s often just too much going on for us to feel like we’re getting a full portrait of the environment that Tollman ambitiously builds.
The main issue at hand is that the film doesn’t fully settle on how it wants to go about things. While Run This Town is able to keep a steady hand over even its most frenzied goings-on – which involve overlapping timelines, split-screens, and a generally breathless energy – we’re still left wanting. Tollman’s efforts to comment on how all of the characters work to achieve their varying goals isn’t all that comprehensive. Much of the film is seen through Bram’s eyes, as he attempts to chase an explosive lead (the video of Ford smoking crack). But little is made about the actual substance of what he’s doing – the initial doubt he faces, his many rookie mistakes made in the process, and the growing pressure of a shifting media environment which is not conducive to his efforts in the first place, are frequently invoked but never discussed in genuine detail. Though Platt gives a committed and energetic performance, as does the rest of the talented cast, the unfocused writing still invokes a particular distance. When the focus shifts to the city hall setting, where it largely follows Kamal’s growing torment at having to defend an indefensible man, we encounter the same problems, despite the added stakes of being in the direct presence of Ford. Every character except Ford has been invented for the film, but even given the latitude to invent entirely new dynamics and circumstances around the mold of an infamous, real-life story, the script still feels relegated to operating in fast-paced snippets.
Run This Town operates itself into a corner in this respect, always wanting to add more, but enhancing the risk of just muddling things up. It’s nowhere close to being truly mishandled — it’s not hard to watch the film and think that, despite the problems Tollman encounters in putting everything together, there is often something involving about the ambitious nature of it all. But though the movie runs quickly and with great frenzy, it mostly ends up running in circles. It plays more like a broad thesis on its subject matter rather than a full review of anything in particular, and when there’s no more material to run through, just comes to a halt, with a finale that is effective in the moment, but somewhat abrupt. What are we left with after that? We don’t feel like we’ve particularly gained any insight into how this stylized conceptualization of this story – with its fictional characters and extraneous commentary (at one point, Bram delivers an unprompted, lengthy monologue about the difficulty of being taken seriously by his professional superiors from an older generation) – works to create a complete vision. The movie ultimately can’t escape the feeling that it’s more of a collection than anything else, and while no component of that collection is particularly unwanted or out of place, there needs to be more than just that presence.