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Filth City a sample of the queasy politics of political biopics

One day, there might be a good movie made about Rob Ford. The late politician's life overflowed with drama, after all – there was enough scandal and conflict and heartache to fill at least two hours' worth of your time, if not an entire miniseries.

But just as Rob Ford was not the mayor Toronto deserved, the new feature Filth City is not the Rob Ford movie anyone – Torontonians, the Ford family, moviegoers with even a modicum of good taste – needs.

Making its world premiere Saturday night in Toronto (as part of the mid-tier Canadian Film Festival), Filth City bills itself as a dark comedy loosely based around Ford's in-office exploits, although the words "loosely based" and even "comedy" carry dubious definitions here. The film's anti-hero is York City Mayor Tom Hogg (as in Boss, get it?), played with unctuous derangement by Pat Thornton as a crack-smoking, Scotch-swilling, AK-47-wielding maniac, desperate to quash rivals, grope Sarah Thomson stand-ins, and order a murder or two.

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Directed by Andy King, Filth City at least lives up to its name: This is a gross, slimy project in which no one emerges clean, especially its creators. It is blunt, crass, and grating to the point of being unwatchable – and that's when Hogg isn't onscreen, as the narrative splits itself between the mayor and a disgraced cop (co-writer Danny Polishchuk) looking to fight city hall. When the attention does turn to hizzoner, the film somehow sinks further, wasting one man's complicated legacy on a series of easy jokes that a third grader would find pedestrian.

Mostly, Filth City's failure is on King, Polishchuk, and Thornton – although it's not as if they are alone in their creative folly. Rarely has there been a good movie made about any politician, let alone one as controversial as Rob Ford.

A quick look at the politician-biopic genre reveals a near-uniform history of missteps, so much so that it's a wonder filmmakers continue to mine the territory.

Primary Colors, Hyde Park on Hudson, Nixon, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, W., the yet-to-be-released but weak all the same LBJ – whether designed as truthful or disguised portraits, these films end up as either treacly tributes or confused mishmashes, afraid to pull punches or get at the real heart of the character.

Sure, there have been exceptions, namely Steven Spielberg's 2012 biopic Lincoln, but that had the benefit of being 147 years removed from history, and directed by one of our greatest living filmmakers. Even last year's dual Barack Obama films, Southside with You and Barry, didn't purport to detail the former U.S. president's actual political life, merely small slices of his pre-Washington days. Which was a wise move, as the genre has proven time and again that distilling a man's life in office is a messy, foolhardy task.

Stay close to the politician, and you risk lionizing him (Mandela). Stray too far, and you risk tripping into self-parody (Oliver Stone's oeuvre). And with audiences already so familiar with the subject, filmmakers are further set back trying to overcome ingrained opinions, often leaving them to flail in the mushy middle (Primary Colors).

Put simply, there is no room for nuance, not unless you embark on, say, a 10-part miniseries, and even then the subject matter has proven too fraught to conquer with any depth or artistry (2011's 353-minute opus The Kennedys comes closest – if you can buy Greg Kinnear as JFK, that is).

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A better bet for filmmakers is to work around a politician, by either making movies more concerned with the headline-making eras that defined them (All the President's Men, Fair Game, even the delightful comedy Dick) or plumbing reality to create fully fictionalized worlds that have the ring of truth but tell their own narratives (Bulworth, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wag the Dog, The Candidate).

Arguably, the filmmakers behind Filth City tried the latter approach, using Rob Ford's infamy to spike their own jaundiced world of drugs, sex, and drug and sex jokes. Yet their attempt is so naked and their surrounding material so thin that you wish they had stripped out the Ford facsimile altogether, and focused their energies on just about anything else.

Then again, if they did so, we wouldn't be talking about the movie at all. Just like Rob Ford's mayoralty, Filth City is painful to watch, and impossible to ignore.

Video: Rob Ford had similar message to Donald Trump, claims Doug Ford (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More


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