The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Matt Bai & Jay Carson &Jason Reitman (based on the book All the Truth Is Out by Matt Bai)
Stars: Hugh Jackman (Gary Hart), Vera Farmiga (Oletha “Lee” Hart), J. K. Simmons (Bill Dixon), Alfred Molina (Ben Bradlee), Sara Paxton (Donna Rice), Mamoudou Athie (A.J. Parker), John Bedford Lloyd (David S. Broder), Spencer Garrett (Bob Woodward), Steve Coulter (Bob Kaiser), Ari Graynor (Ann Devroy), Kaitlyn Dever (Andrea Hart), Toby Huss (Billy Broadhurst), Steve Zissis (Tom Fiedler), Bill Burr (Pete Murphy), Mike Judge (Jim Savage), Kevin Pollak (Bob Martindale)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2018
Country: U.S.
The Front Runner
The Front Runner

In our current political climate, it is hard to know what, exactly, to make of Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, a cinematic recounting of how Senator Gary Hart, the handsome, dynamic front runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1988, was derailed by accusations of an extramarital affair. Now, bear in mind that we currently have a President who ascended to the White House despite being recorded bragging about his ability to grab women’s genitals with impunity and who allegedly had affairs with both a porn star and a Playboy model and paid them off (probably illegally) and still boasts support from more than 40% of the American population. From that perspective, the accusations against Hart seem downright quaint. On the other hand, the media attention that surrounded Hart’s affair and his fall from grace can be seen as the beginning of a new era in which politicians’ private lives became more and more central to their public personas—an era that would reach a climax of sorts a little less than a decade later with the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair.

The Front Runner is thus positioned as a kind of reckoning, a looking back and assessing of the lasting cultural and political impact of the Gary Hart scandal. And that is all well and good theoretically, but the blandly smooth manner in which Reitman’s film recounts the events renders them dramatically inert. Reitman burst onto the cinematic scene 13 years ago with his feature debut Thank You for Smoking (2005), a virtuoso political satire about the ethical vacuity of corporate lobbyists that was smart, energetic, and visually clever. He plays The Front Runner largely straight, with a few doses of dark comedy here and there, but not nearly enough to evoke the essence of the political and media circus that the Hart scandal unleashed.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a smart political wonder boy with a bright future who fell prey to his own desires by engaging in an affair with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), an aspiring actress and model with a Phi Beta Kappa academic pedigree, much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife (Vera Farmiga), who is arguably too understanding and flexible (“All I asked is that you don’t embarrass me,” she says at one point) and his hard-nosed campaign manager (J.K. Simmons), who clearly was not prepared for what would be unleashed. There were already rumors that Hart was a “womanizer,” and he makes the fatal mistake of literally daring the media to follow him around—which, of course, they do, and discover apparent evidence of his affair with Rice when they see her enter his Washington, DC, townhouse one evening and never leave (Hart claimed she didn’t spend the night and left out the back door). While we never see any actual physical contact between Hart and Rice, the film doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that there was some serious hanky-panky going on while simultaneously casting newspaper reporters and editors at the Washington Post and the Miami Herald as villains who were more interested in scoring headlines than reporting facts. The film makes for a particularly interesting companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), which last year lionized the role of the media in reporting on the Pentagon Papers and made a hero of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks), who here is decidedly less virtuous as played by Alfred Molina.

Hart grouses that his personal life is none of the media’s—and, by extension, the American public’s—business, and The Front Runner uses that argument as its dramatic and thematic backbone, suggesting that American politics have been forever tainted by the media’s unhealthy obsession with what goes on behind closed doors. Hart argues that such intrusiveness will result in driving otherwise good and qualified candidates from putting themselves in the spotlight—and perhaps he was right. But, such an argument is also riddled with problems, starting with the fact that tabloid culture and political ugliness was hardly an invention of the late 1980s; the terse relationship among politicians, media outlets, and we the people is as old as newsprint. Granted, there is something to be said for the unique confluence of events that led to Hart’s downfall—particularly a handsome, young, rising political star undone by sex—and had The Front Runner been more creative and dynamic in dramatizing that confluence, the film might have been more than stiff political theater that plays into disingenuous cries of “fake news.”

Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2)

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