This article was contributed by Brad Lavigne and originally published on March 8, 2013
When I stepped onto the movie set in Winnipeg to watch some of the scenes being shot of Jack, a production of Pier 21 Films about Jack Layton’s historic election campaign in 2011 and his death a few months later, it was just like I was walking into my old office, the NDP’s headquarters at the corner of Laurier and Bank in downtown Ottawa.
Riding maps and posters of the leader blanketed the orange and grey walls. Television monitors, mounted on a wall, were tuned to the all-news channels.
Even more surreal was meeting the actor who plays me. Zach Bennett is tall (I’m not), he’s young (I used to be) and he’s thin (I was too when I was his age). Then it hit me: so much of modern campaign is theatre, just like movie making. Both need a compelling lead character, an inviting message and images that reinforce the story.
The NDP’s breakthrough campaign was a $20-million project that required the campaign team to write a script, scout locations and set up a “perfect” shot each day for the evening news. And like a good movie, the goal was to create strong visuals that would establish an emotional attachment with the target audience.
The makers of Jack do a brilliant job reproducing the theatre of politics in the theatre of film. They weave the last five months of Layton’s life, packed with exhilarating triumph with the NDP’s breakthrough and brutal heartbreak with his sudden death at the pinnacle of his career, with flashback of Layton’s life with his wife, Olivia Chow, a touching love story and dynamic political partnership that spanned three decades.
It is a great Canadian story and the film does it justice. At first, though, when I watched the story of the 2011 campaign unfold scene by scene, I couldn’t really take it in. I watched with a sense of detachment. I watched Bennett, who portrayed Felix King in Road to Avonlea, and said to myself: “That’s not me, he’s taller, younger and better looking. And I don’t talk like that. I don’t do that.
Besides, I’m not supposed to be part of the story, I said to myself. We had a mantra in Jack’s office that staff must never be the story. We worked hard to avoid the mistakes of other parties, which fell into the trap of making the story about them. Just like the other staffers portrayed in the film – chief of staff Anne McGrath, longtime press secretary Karl Belanger and Layton confidante and strategist Brian Topp – we were there to serve Jack, not become the story.
So the idea of being a character in a biopic feels really odd. I had to get past that. And then I watched the film a few times with colleagues and friends who know me. They immediately saw lots of me in there, inside the taller, more handsome Brad on screen.
That makes for some uncomfortable introspection and unanticipated self-awareness: so that’s what I look like to the world; that’s how screenwriter Andrew Wreggitt interpreted me after reading the transcripts of my lengthy interviews with the film’s writing and production team.
Of course, Jack isn’t a documentary. It is based on a true story and real events, and the film accurately captures the tale. But due to the constraints of packing a lifetime into 88 minutes, some events and secondary characters, like the staff, are composites of sorts. You can’t introduce a slew of new characters for single scenes to ensure absolute accuracy.
But the makers of the film do a wonderful job of portraying the team that Jack assembled. And Layton and Chow are the stars of the story, and Rick Roberts and Sook-Yin Lee capture their essence beautifully. The movie just reinforced for me that we were the luckiest people to have worked with Jack and help him realign Canadian federal politics.
This film is for anyone interested in a truly Canadian story about overcoming the odds, defying the critics and having it all taken away at the height of one’s success. The film, like the man, is inspirational.
As my good friend and former colleague Anne McGrath said at the Ottawa screening earlier this week, it’s nice to spend another hour and a half with Jack.
Brad Lavigne is vice president of public affairs at Hill + Knowlton Strategies in Ottawa. He was a close adviser to Jack Layton for nine years, serving as communications director, the 2011 national campaign director, and principal secretary. The movie Jack airs on CBC Television Sunday night at 8 p.m.