Film Reviews

REVIEW: Danny

Hot Docs 2015

Canada, 84 min.
Dir. William D. MacGillivray, Justin Simms
Toronto Premiere

It’s easy to forget that Newfoundland is younger than a portion of Canadian citizens. The province, which joined the nation of the maple leaf in 1949, has one of the most interesting yet overlooked histories of all the Canadian provinces. As former Premier Danny Williams and his fellow Newfoundlanders surmise in the NFB documentary Danny, a healthy mix of pride, character, and emotion goes into taking a province from a land of plenty to a “’have not’ province” and, finally, back to a “have” province. The growth and pride of Newfoundland is due in no small part to Williams’ tumultuous role in Canadian politics, and this study of the larger-than-life politician is ultimately a winning portrait of the nation itself.

Danny finds an unlikely underdog story in the former Progressive Conservative Premier who led Newfoundland and Labrador to a financial and emotional comeback during his reign from 2003 to 2010. Films rarely invite audiences to root for multi-millionaire politicians who lean to the right, but Danny does it as the everyman’s spirit of its titular character draw audiences into a humbling tale. This film by William D. MacGillivray (Life Classes) and Justin Simms (Hold Fast) rings with East Coast pride and passion as Williams chronicles his life’s story to the camera in a compelling and charismatic direct address. The filmmakers punctuate the former Premier’s story with intercuts of him whizzing down the ice and handling the puck, thus likening the game of politics to Canada’s national pastime as Danny leads to the ultimate face-off of Williams’ career. The effect situates Newfoundland’s Captain within the greater Canadian national consciousness as he glides around the rink.

Danny—the former Premier prefers to be called by his first name—shows none of the self-consciousness and reticence that sometimes characterizes contemporary politicians in Canada. His interviews and anecdotes come straight from the heart with sincerity and candour. It’s easy to see why some commentators describe Danny as one of the most controversial figures of his time, but it’s just as easy to see what makes him so popular. He’s a straight shooter, and one relates to his passion and conviction even if one disagrees with his point of view or methodology.

The film chronicles Danny’s life from his humble beginnings to his exit from elected office, and it parallels the course of the politician’s life with that of the province he represents. His birth succeeds Newfoundland’s entry into Canada by only a few months, so MacGillivray and Simms find a natural progression in a tale that chronicles the rise of a province and its future leader from modest
origins to a place of strength and pride. Danny uses the successes of Williams’ career, including his lucrative work in media and his high¬ profile effort as a lawyer, in contrast to the struggles of Newfoundland as the province fights to escape a marginal place in the Canadian mindset. The film is unabashedly patriotic, but it isn’t afraid to interrogate the imbalances of power that separates a nation as large and diverse as Canada.

Danny is as a rousing and inspiring character study of the Premier and his province alike. Interviews with a cast of colourful figures, including a host of Williams’ colleagues, political commentators, and even the Premier’s spunky mother, create a rich, but frank, portrait of a man who inspired his constituents and peers with his uncontrived attitude. Danny also displays a great deal of humour as excerpts from This Hour has 22 Minutes poke fun at Williams’ tactics and persona—-one highlight featuring Gordon Pinsent as the wise, authoritative Codfather is especially funny—-and the film invites comedian Mark Critch to join the conversation. Critch’s accounts reveal Danny’s ability to be a good sport and laugh with his critics, but the interviews also give a sense of Williams’ influence beyond his immediate circle and convey his role in shaping Newfoundland’s greater character.

MacGillivray and Simms smartly get to the heart of Danny’s story by focusing on key points in Williams’ tenure as Premier. The most gripping act comes when Danny recalls the episode in which he called for the removal of Canadian flags from government buildings in Newfoundland in protest of a broken promise from then-Prime Minister Paul Martin that the Federal government would help Newfoundland rebound economically through the profits of offshore drilling. It takes a lot of moxie to defy Canada’s top political dog and Big Oil alike, and this pivotal episode in Danny reveals much about the subject’s work ethic and sense of character. Danny provides a worthy lesson in leadership as it presents his rogue effort to stand by his convictions and see them through to a victory that has profoundly affected Newfoundland’s economy in a positive way. The episode also emphasized Newfoundland’s unwillingness to be a fringe player in Canada.

Danny’s story feels doubly relevant in an election year like 2015, as the film takes a dramatic turn during Williams’ equally controversial butting¬ of¬ heads with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The accounts and archival footage of Harper’s testy relationship with Williams echoes the same dismissive attitude of Newfoundland that prevailed for decades. The ominous words “Culture of defeat” hiss out, bringing the same sting with which they characterized Newfoundland during its early years in Canada, after Harper reneges on a deal and Danny refuses to be conquered.

Danny, like a captain motivating his team to win the Stanley Cup, launches the (in)famous “ABC” campaign urging Newfoundlanders and Canadians alike to vote Anything But Conservative in the 2008 federal election. It was a bold move by a Progressive Conservative Premier, but also a telling one that’s bound to make the film resonate strongly with audiences across Canada right now.

Danny’s rousing tale has the province and it beloved former Premier coming out swinging like champs in the end. You’ll want to stand up and cheer when the final buzzer sounds.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat, Apr 25 at 6:30 PM
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Sun, Apr 26 10:30 AM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Sun, May 3 1:15 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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