A relevant political drama about simpler times.
The Front Runner was originally reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival. It expanded into more theaters Nov. 21.
It would be easy to dismiss director Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner as a film that’s too late to the conversation. After all, a politician losing his career for cheating on his wife may seem too small to deserve a movie now when contemporary politicians get away with far bigger misdeeds. But while Reitman’s well-acted film does manage to find relevance in its scrutiny of politicians and the press who cover them, it’s just too indecisive to say anything deeply important about either camp.
Hugh Jackman plays a different kind of great showman here, real life US politician Gary Hart who, after coming in second for the Democratic primaries in 1984, became the obvious front runner to win the presidency in 1988. The title card notes that a lot can happen in the three weeks leading up to the election, and we subsequently follow the downfall of a man who not only seemed like the sure winner, but the absolute best candidate to lead a nation. Jackman captures Gary Hart’s quick wit and charisma, convincing one there was never any doubt of him winning. During his campaign tour, we see Hart expertly throwing axes, calming a journalist scared of turbulence, and sharing his radical viewpoints (for the time). He seems like the perfect man, and Jackman sells it with a winning smile. Yet behind the smile hides a very private man. “It’s none of their business”, Hart says repeatedly throughout the film when grilled about his personal life, and it encapsulates the film’s approach to such a guarded character. Some will likely leave The Front Runner not knowing anything more about Gary Hart the person than they did before, and that’s probably how he would have wanted it.
When Miami Herald reporters discover an attractive woman coming and going from Hart’s DC townhouse, they confront Hart, who refuses to answer the questions, igniting a debate inside the campaign and the newsrooms about whether Hart’s private life should be up for public debate or if it is even pertinent to the election. “What is newsworthy?” is the central question of The Front Runner. Journalists in the film comment that politicians have cheated on their wives for years and no one cared, but that maybe things have to change now. The movie questions whether the press was right to target Hart for his personal indiscretions, hinting at how it beget the political tabloid journalism that followed in the years to come.
The story focuses as much on those caught up in Hart’s scandal as it does the titular politician. We meet the journalists who uncover the scandal, Hart’s wife Lee (Vera Farmiga), who has to deal with her turn in the spotlight and the dozens of journalists gathered on her front lawn, and Hart’s campaign team, lead by Bill Dixon ( J.K. Simmons). The script (credited to Reitman, Matt Bai, and Jay Carson) gives everyone a moment to shine, and the dialogue is snappy and witty, offering some levity amidst the otherwise heavy subject matter. Reitman is clearly inspired by Robert Altman’s style of shifting points of view during the movie, as well as his overlapping dialogue, which makes the scenes with lots of characters even more entertaining to watch.
While the film initially is broadly sympathetic to Hart’s situation as it scrutinizes the role of the press in covering the scandal, the women and journalists here observe that Hart is a man with power who abused his position and privilege in his treatment of women. The Front Runner ultimately proves frustrating then in that it never reaches a conclusion to its central question and is too afraid to take sides. Instead, we get half-cooked opinions given by characters that are difficult to identify with, which stops the film from having any urgency or significant depth. Nevertheless, it poses an important central question, and the film is thoughtful enough to give ample screen time to and show compassion to the woman at the center of the scandal, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), to make up for its lack of decisiveness.