Even those not so thoroughly ensconced in Canadian politics know who Danny Williams is. He was the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from 2003 to 2010, and while he may not have been the head of the most powerful province, or the richest, or the most influential, or the most culturally significant, he did make a name and a reputation for himself as its leader.
Danny, the simply titled biographical film about Williams, chronicles his pre-political life and his tenure as perhaps the most influential provincial politician in Newfoundland since the quarter-century reign of Joey Smallwood from 1949 to 1972. It’s likely that only real politicos would consider a documentary about retired politician from Canada, but there is a universality to the story that the politically ignorant might appreciate.
Stylistically, Danny doesn’t re-invent the wheel. Interviews with Williams, his family, his friends and his former staff are all inter-cut with B-roll, archival footage, home movies, and photos. The film also uses dramatized segments to add to the story including a young Danny staking on the ice, of course signifying the importance of hockey in his life, as it is important for all Canadians. Another segment re-enacts the ’72 election defeat of Smallwood, at which point Williams’ mother and a group friends went to the Premier’s office and danced on the desk. Obviously there were no cameras around then. Or security.
For the uninitiated, the film gives an historical background of Newfoundland, an area with a long history that was paradoxically the last province to join Canada in confederation. There’s still some resentment about how it happened in some quarters, but Danny doesn’t marinate on that too much because by the time that Williams rose to power, there were a great many other problems. The film recognizes that Williams was elected with a long list of persistent issues to solve, but it would have been nice if there had been a bit more context in regards to the specifics, both internal and external.
For example, the film kind of drives around the cod crisis, the not-so-sudden collapse of the Northwestern Atlantic cod fishery in the early 90s that suddenly put over half-a-million fisherman out of work and further solidified Newfoundland as a provincial population with its collective hand out. The film recounts briefly the incredible anger and outrage at the moratorium of cod fishing directed at federal and provincial politicians, which is weird because as an outside observer, I would have though the largest industrial closure in Canadian history might have ranked more than a mention.
On the other hand, maybe it was just not immediate enough to Williams’ story, and make no mistake, this is Williams’ story. It’s easy to see that the filmmakers are more than a little in love with the mystique of Williams and his status as a Newfoundland political folk hero. His message really resonated, and clearly still does as we see the now retired Williams out and about, but no politician is perfect, even the politicians you love. And certainly Williams has his faults. One which was addressed in the film saw Williams call into a radio show to yell at the host for commenting on the rankings of the day’s top stories. Williams thought it went without saying that his progress in getting resource development rights for Newfoundland was rightfully the main news story.
That’s just the kind of thing that made him a frequent figure of consented mockery on the sketch comedy series This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Many people will recognize Williams’ regular appearances on the show, but what was unknown, for me at least, was that he was a member of CODCO, a sketch comedy troupe that would later give rise to the stars of 22 Minutes. One wonders if all politicians should have a comedy background, thus allowing them to have a better handle on the job, occasional outbursts on live radio aside of course.
However, the point can be argued that we love people for their faults, and that could certainly be the case for Williams. His style of direct speech and talking truth to power made Newfoundlanders proud, and his message of “no more handouts” resonated with a people who saw themselves as proud and didn’t not want to be considered hanger-ons anymore. In the broader cultural context in terms of how voters felt about Williams, the documentary does really well at explaining the appeal.
Still, Danny doesn’t address Williams’ controversies, no matter how slight they may have been in relation to other politicians and their scandals. There was no counter commentary about whether or not Williams was pushing hard on resource development when it appeared that there was a lack of readiness in the event of an oil spill. As well, there was that time Williams used his wealth to go to the U.S. for a medical procedure, hopping the line for the same type of surgery that was available for free to all Canadians. How do you maintain a man of the people veneer when you’re rich enough to do things that ordinary people can’t do?
Even I will admit that those critiques are slight, and that Danny may not be designed to be a takedown piece of its own very involved subject matter. Having said that though, I can’t bring myself to hate this movie. Quite the contrary. It’s fun, quick, insightful and warm in terms of recounting the political career of a man who many see as a saviour in his own province. Williams may have had his faults and his misses as Premier, but when you’re loved in the eyes of the people, you can do no wrong. Danny makes a very strong case that we should all love Danny Williams too, and upon seeing the documentary, you probably will.
Danny is a compelling biography of a the Newfoundland premiere that appeals as both a human story and a political one.