Robert Fulford's column about the CBC miniseries Trudeau

(The National Post, April 2, 2002)

Let no one ever fault Wayne Grigsby and Jerry Ciccoritti for timidity. Grigsby, as writer and co-producer, and Ciccoritti, as director, demonstrated reckless courage when they tackled Pierre Trudeau, surely the most daunting personality in modern Canadian history. On Sunday and Monday evenings they delivered to CBC audiences an ambitious four-hour TV movie, Trudeau, with Colm Feore as Pierre and Polly Shannon as Margaret. If their valiant efforts produced merely another exercise in sycophantic Trudeau myth-making, they could argue this was probably what much of the public wanted from them.

They chose to focus on three conflicts in Trudeau's life: the FLQ crisis of 1970, the struggle over the Constitution in 1981, and his failed marriage. On the FLQ kidnappings and murder, they provided a convincing if Ottawa-centric view of what happened and why. The Constitution, on the other hand, utterly defeated them. They must have realized, when it was too late, that it was a mistake to bet the best part of an hour (their closing hour, at that) on this infuriatingly complicated subject.

Nothing they could do breathed life into it, and I doubt that anyone watching knew what was going on or remembered 10 minutes later what the man who didn't look much like Premier Peter Lougheed of Alberta and the man who didn't look much like Premier Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick were talking about. In fact, it was hard to tell from the film why Trudeau himself was so bitterly determined to intimidate the premiers and ram through his constitutional changes.

His marriage gave the film (as perhaps Margaret gave Trudeau himself) both its best and its most frustrating moments. The record demonstrates that Trudeau was a fool for love, a middle-aged man whose experience with women had taught him nothing. In affairs of state he was the prince of manipulators, but his bizarre immaturity with women turned his marriage into a nightmare for him, his wife and the country. He was astonished to discover that a woman barely old enough to vote was wretched when moved into an environment where everyone was a generation older, most were hopelessly boring and many had a habit of speaking French, a foreign language to her.

This, surely, was the one part of the Trudeau story that was perfect for TV. But Grigsby and Ciccoritti wasted much of it, mainly because they failed at what moviemakers usually find easiest: casting a beautiful girl in the beautiful girl part.

Polly Shannon totally lacked Margaret's breathtaking radiance and showed barely a hint of her matchless smile. This made Trudeau's folly incomprehensible and drained the meaning from their defective romance. Watching the early scenes, we could only wonder why this brainy politician was fooling around with a charmless, empty-headed girl who kept raving about John Keats.

But in the third of the four TV hours, when Margaret's sense of grievance pushed to the surface, Shannon's performance came alive, and the mutually disappointing relationship of Margaret and Pierre became credible even as it fell to pieces. Her anger, his coldness, her fecklessness, his bafflement -- the conflict was played out with clarity and power. When the four hours were over, the rancour of that match in its dying days was the main emotional residue.

On political issues, the bias of the filmmakers was obvious. Enraptured perhaps by a late-blooming Trudeaumania, they bought outright the view of Liberal image makers that the entire future of Canada depended on this one heroic figure, a man who apparently made even party politics noble.

They depicted Trudeau's centralism as self-evidently virtuous and the premiers' demand for greater autonomy as dangerous and self-seeking. They bathed Jean Chrétien in a warm glow; he was one honest guy doing his best to deal with all the crazy, obsessed people around him. They ignored Trudeau's incompetence in finance, his capricious inability to stick with a subject (such as the Third World) even after announcing it was the most important topic on Earth, and his affection for despots like Fidel Castro.

The FLQ sequence edged toward a posthumous rehabilitation of Trudeau as civil libertarian: It made him look almost passive, swept along by the anxieties of others toward invocation of the dictatorial War Measures Act. In this telling, it wasn't really his fault.

Finding a style for this story was a problem the filmmakers solved by adopting an anthology of styles, from the jump-cut comedy of Beatles films (when they described 1968 Trudeaumania) to the formalized rhetorical manner of Patton. As a director, Ciccoritti was a child let loose in the candy store of movie history. He gobbled up the whole catalogue of directorial tics, tricks and affectations: slow motion, freeze-frames, headlines streaming across the screen, strobe lights, overlapping scenes, even split-screen sequences borrowed from Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair.

In one case, out of a perverse yearning for manufactured glamour, Ciccoritti got the tone dead wrong by inserting a masked costume ball at the Governor-General's residence. It looked like nothing ever seen in modern Ottawa but closely resembled many sequences on Masterpiece Theatre.

This nervous style-shifting could be amusing to watch. Most of the time, though, it felt like a shell game designed to keep us from noticing the dramatic emptiness of the script, the filmmakers' total inability to understand their subject and, above all, their failure to impose on the story any more shape than you could find in Trudeau's adoring obits.

Colm Feore, a convincing imitator of Trudeau, rarely conveyed much emotional depth. It may have been good strategy for the real Trudeau to keep other people at a distance, but it didn't work for the star of a long movie; since we were spending four hours with this character, we naturally wanted to get close.

Many of Feore's colleagues were, unfortunately, less effective impersonators. R.H. Thomson didn't look or talk even a little like his character, Mitchell Sharp, and Raymond Cloutier completely missed the worldly sophistication of Trudeau's closest friend in Cabinet, Gérard Pelletier.

Trudeau the film was more nostalgia than drama or history; its main effect was to spread the hazy impression (rarely heard in the 1970s) that Pierre Trudeau was a unique and inspiring leader, on a much higher level than any other mortal of his day or ours. As entertainment it ranged from lively and intense to achingly boring. As a way of spreading enlightenment, it was at best marginally useful.

In the end Trudeau the man eluded the makers of Trudeau the film, as he would certainly have wished. We didn't understand him when he was prime minister, we didn't understand him in his years of brooding and bitter retirement, and we gained little understanding by watching the series on CBC television.

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