D: Jason Reitman / 113m
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper, Chris Coy, Kaitlyn Dever, Molly Ephraim, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge, John Bedford Lloyd, Mark O’Brien, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak, Steve Zissis
1984. Senator Gary Hart (Jackman) of Colorado loses the Democratic presidential nomination to Walter Mondale. Four years later, Hart is the front runner in the race for the presidency, ahead in the polls against Republican candidate George H.W. Bush, and on course to put a Democrat back in the Oval Office after Ronald Reagan’s eight-year tenure. While campaigning in Florida, Hart attends a party held by a political associate of his, and there he meets Donna Rice (Paxton), a university graduate who is interested in working for Hart’s campaign as a fundraiser. Later, a reporter at the Miami Herald, Tom Fiedler (Zissis), receives an anonymous call informing him that Hart is meeting Rice at his home in Washington. Deciding to follow Rice to Washington, she is seen in Hart’s company at his home, and appears to have stayed there overnight. The Herald publishes an article exposing Hart’s “affair”, and in the ensuing days, the senator has to decide whether he should fight the accusation and continue with his campaign, or abandon his hopes of becoming President altogether…
Based on the book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Reitman and Jay Carson), The Front Runner is an odd mix of political drama, cautionary tale, and media morality discourse, but it’s also a mix that doesn’t entirely work because it doesn’t examine these aspects in any meaningful or deliberate way. It’s true, Hart targets the media as the authors of his downfall, and makes several pointed remarks about how intrusive they’ve become in order to break a story, but rather than providing a precise examination of the way in which newspaper reporting was beginning to morph into what we’re familiar with nowadays, the movie instead opts to have several reporters look sheepish when challenged, and bleating about the public’s right to know when polls clearly showed they weren’t that interested. The movie also has a problem with the nature of Hart’s relationship with Rice. As both parties stated then (and since) that they weren’t having an affair, and no conclusive proof was ever found, the whole issue is inferred in much the same way that the Miami Herald originally reported it. As a result, the movie has a gaping narrative hole in it, one that it never overcomes.
But with all this, what truly matters is whether or not Hart’s story is actually worth telling… and on this evidence, the answer has to be No. Despite an impressive performance from Jackman that paints Hart as a man whose surface charm hides an arrogant, self-righteous personality, the movie struggles to make his downfall anything like the tragedy it’s aiming for. When he’s not putting all the blame on the media, he’s pitiful and apologetic to his long-suffering wife, Lee (Farmiga), admitting his culpability to her but not to anyone else; this makes it hard to feel sympathy for someone whose sense of personal morality is so badly compromised. Elsewhere, the movie shifts and turns uneasily in its attempts to make itself politically and socially relevant to today’s climate (feminist issues form the basis for a subplot involving Rice’s treatment by Hart’s campaign team), and Reitman shapes too many scenes that are meant to be impactful, but which fall short because they lack the necessary energy or power. Judged against the current political climate in America, the “details” of Hart’s fall from grace seem almost whimsical now in their simplicity, and The Front Runner doesn’t offer the required insights to make it more compelling or effective.
Rating: 6/10 – to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the times they were a-changin'”, but though this is touched on in The Front Runner, like much else it touches on, the movie raises many more questions than it can answer, and often feels like a beginner’s guide to Eighties political naïvete; with a large supporting cast that’s given little to do that might improve matters – Athie and Ephraim are the exceptions – the movie casts a wide net but its catch isn’t as substantial as it should have been, and it’s only occasionally absorbing.