Hot Docs Review: Danny (2014, Justin Simms, William D. MacGillivray)


A teary-eyed man stands at a podium and utters these words: “Orson Welles once said, if you want a happy ending, you need to know when to end your story.” Like Citizen Kane, Danny is a story of a political giant that begins at the end. Danny Williams was a rarity in Canadian politics. In a political culture where we often vote away what we don’t want rather than democratically embrace an agenda of action, the fiery former premier is a rare case study.

The guy who outright mutinied against Stephen Harper in the early 2000s? The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador that everyone was talking about on the radio and tv and in the paper? Yep, that was Danny.

The movie does a solid job of addressing the post-Confederation history of Newfoundland, especially the series of bad deals dealt to the province that left what was once a thriving, independent nation a mere pawn in the federal game. The struggles of recent years have been an attempt to negotiate for a fair share of offshore oil profits, a fight that Danny was born for. It’s a familiar story to many Canadians, and one that should interest anyone that has witnessed how oil has become the central economic issue of our country.

The more direct subject of the film is given a familiar, biographical treatment in the midst of this broader provincial story. He is shown wearing a variety of hats: student, hockey player, dutiful son, Rhodes scholar, trial lawyer. His early years in office are explained in painful terms, as dealing with the catastrophic changes to fishing in the province was a constant ordeal for the newly minted politician. Thankfully, along came Paul Martin, a boxing buddy for Danny, someone he could treat to his Newfoundland and Labrador jab-punch of patriotism. We won’t mention Steve here.

Danny has a captivating story, born out of an incredibly charismatic, quotable person. Yet there is something to be said about championing a politician too unabashedly. To be proud of one’s folk heroes is a great thing, but we live in an age that demands more nuanced approaches to its public figures. The premier’s former staff provide a great deal of the commentary throughout the story, something that felt forced and one-sided. If a man is to be judged, his detractors should be given voice, and he should be allowed to stand up to their test. I feel Danny didn’t give its subject the chance to outbully the bullies who would see him cut down.

As a tribute, the documentary is a just approximation of everything that Canadians loved about Danny Williams, and it should be applauded. For a politician with means and determination is the sort of symbol we need in our current political climate. The film asks its viewers to abandon harsh criticism and pessimism, allowing Danny to remain enshrined in a Kubla Khan of newspaper headlines and coffee break stories. Perhaps we should oblige.

Danny screens again on Sunday, May 3 @ 1:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre.

Posted on by Jack Derricourt in Hot Docs