Ricky Tollman’s Run This Town begins in a bout of stylistic frenzy that defines the ambitions, if not the overall tone, of his film quite well. A mock debate session among whip-smart post-grads quickly borders on sensory overload; Tollman deploys enough split screen to make Brian DePalma blush and gives the characters rapid-fire Sorkinese to spout as pontification. These would-be changemakers, not unlike the film itself, are just revving up the intellectual horsepower they’ve amassed after years in higher education, while realizing they have very little highway ahead of them.
Run This Town speaks effectively to a particular brand of millennial frustration – chiefly to those whose worldview was affirmed by the financial crisis and its ensuing lack of institutional accountability. The film’s three main figures choose different paths post-grad – Kamal (Aladdin’s Mena Massoud) and Ashley (Nina Dobrev) go the Toronto city hall route, while Bram (Ben Platt) pursues a career in journalism – but each does so out of some sense of pursuing a greater social good. The disaffected trio might have accepted that these professions are paid disproportionately lower, in salary and prestige, than the service they provide society. Yet they are still woefully unprepared for the wide chasm between their ideals and reality.
Though a scandalous 2013 incident involving Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis, who appears borderline Lynchian in a grotesque fat suit) brings the three together by the end, Tollman mostly bifurcates their trajectories as they launch into the working world. Bram enters the newsroom of a small local rag at a time of parallel crises. On the one hand, the new media environment geared toward short attention spans and easily digestible content to chase that online ad revenue decimates the staff count. Though lucky to still have a job, Bram scarcely gets to flex his journalistic muscle by producing BuzzFeed-style list content for their website.
He becomes an enormously valuable asset for them, however, in circumventing city hall’s press blockade – a tremendous problem for local newsrooms who provide critical transparency into elected officials’ behavior. Though Run This Town never flatters American viewers with easy parallels to the current occupant of the Oval Office, it hardly takes a political junkie to see Ford’s strategy as a proto-Trumpian playbook. His communications staff discredits media outlets it sees as treating the mayor unfairly (which, of course, is to say that they are reporting the truth), and dodges accountability by refusing to release his public schedule, leaving journalists forever chasing his whereabouts. Bram’s social media savvy helps him circumvent the press blockade by finding tagged pictures of Ford online to retrace the mayor’s itinerary, allowing him to get a foot in the door that he can muscle open with the lucky break of a tip meant for another writer.
It’s here when the precociousness of Tollman’s direction begins to give way to the importance of the story Bram breaks: Mayor Ford groped a female employee in his office. It’s the crime on the Access Hollywood tape with witnesses. When the film gets down to business, it’s a real shoe-leather journalism tale of securing sources, convincing skeptical editors and avoiding threats from the subject. Those anticipating #Resistance-bait celebrating the press are in for a disappointment, however, as Run This Town remains ruthlessly clear-eyed about the brutal institutional roadblocks that makes stories like these increasingly improbable; Bram even has to pitch the story as a gossipy, non-news item to get it published. This is more in line with the tawdry tabloid style of Weiner, the 2016 documentary on the stunning downfall of Anthony Weiner, than the buttoned-up fourth estates of All the President’s Men or The Post.
It’s also not Spotlight, which maintains ruthless message discipline and aesthetic consistency to deliver a cinematic narrative that does the original reporting justice. Run This Town speeds frenetically through thematic subplots (an undercooked #MeToo dynamic comes to mind), heightened language (the historical and cultural references are little too specific to feel real), and unnecessary visual flourishes (a split diopter, we *get it*, you’ve seen a DePalma film) as it takes us through the paces with its striving leads. When Tollman finally slows down a bit, it’s not entirely clear where all the dust he kicks up is supposed to settle. And Run This Town‘s many contradictions – to pick just one example, it feels like a product of the slick style-over-substance storytelling that it critiques – make the final product even harder to pin down.
Tollman’s film is unexpectedly at its best when diagnosing a kind of generational malaise. The past decade of independent cinema from North America is replete with overeducated, underpaid millennials telling us about all their problems. Run This Town is the rare film that actually shows them, too, and documents the steps its characters are taking to fight against their fates. Tollman understands the pervasiveness of the societal barriers that squelch the optimism of young people and turn them jaded – ingenuity and intelligence alone is not enough to overcome these challenges. But he also sees how easy these obstacles are to surmount with a little bit of coordination. His film makes a persuasive argument that well-organized millennials will become the worst nightmare of entrenched systems of power.
“Run This Town”is out Friday, March 6 in limited release and on demand.