The Front Runner
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
In 1988, Gary Hart seemed like a shoo-in, not just to win the Democratic nomination, but also to become president of the United States. He was smart, good-looking and skilled at discussing complex political issues in a way voters could relate to. Then, rumors began circulating concerning his marriage. That turned into a full-blown scandal which seriously halted his campaign’s momentum. Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner (based on Matt Bai’s 2014 book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”) retells this story in a way that makes me wonder what it really thinks about it.
It frames this as the first campaign effected by the media investigation of a candidate’s personal life, something that has become common practice ever since. I am unsure if it is blaming the media for reporting it, the public for being interested in (and swayed by) it or the politicians for naively believing their private lives could stay private. The Front Runner contains a lot of speechifying, but it struggles to build drama or intrigue. The filmmakers appear to have decided telling this story was enough; without a strong viewpoint, it says nothing at all.
Hart was a Colorado senator who had charmed voters in 1984 and instantly became the favorite for 1988. He enjoyed talking about his ideas for the nation’s future, but wanted to keep the spotlight far away from his personal life. He fails to understand why what he does outside of politics is anybody’s business. Once reporters begin poking into Hart’s extramarital activities, it changes the presidential race and how politics would be covered going forward.
The problem is, while the movie is very clear on the importance of that change, it never examines it. Before this, reporters would ignore those things and focus on the issues. Why did things change at that moment? What led to it? Considering we are now in a time where similar allegations seem to have little impact on a candidate’s prospects, some attempt at insight would have been welcome. The Front Runner spends so much time on the how that it neglects the why and the what next.
Hugh Jackman stars as Hart and is game to delve into what makes him tick. Unfortunately, the screenplay turns him into a boring character unable to learn his lesson. He is completely incapable of wrapping his head around the “public figure” part of being a politician. He gets asked a question he does not like, his team tries to convince him to confront it, he refuses, things get worse. Repeat this for 105 minutes (minus the end credits) and Jackman’s scenes get pretty tiring.
The supporting cast is very impressive. J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Ari Graynor, Kevin Pollak and Molly Ephraim all do good work carrying the themes. Athie gives the best performance as an idealistic young reporter forced to decide for himself what his role should be in the political process. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager and Farmiga as his patient wife are both solid. But Athie is the heart of the movie. His arc captures the changing climate in a way the rest cannot.
There are several conversations about the responsibility of a political reporter, but they never lead anywhere. Reitman and his cowriters have the pieces. They have a potentially compelling story with a statement about the intersection between serious journalism and tabloid journalism. Those pieces do not get connected. This could have been a timely movie. Instead, it is an occasionally interesting miss.
2¾ out of 5
Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart
Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart
J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon
Mamoudou Athie as AJ Parker
Molly Ephraim as Irene Kelly
Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee
Ari Graynor as Ann Devroy
Kevin Pollak as Bob Martindale
Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Jason Reitman