Are we still talking about Gary Hart here?
At no point in Jason Reitman’s disappointing drama The Front Runner do any of the characters ask the above question, but it’s certainly something the audience could ask of the movie. Like The Post before it, The Front Runner looks to a rather brief moment of our political history to contextualize the past and comment on the present. In this case, it’s Gary Hart’s failed presidential bid of 1988, pointed to here as the moment everything about modern politics changed. If the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate was when American politics turned into a TV show, Gary Hart’s scandal-plagued downfall was when it became a soap opera.
“And that’s how we got Trump!”, the movie constantly yells. It’s a fine enough message in a fine enough film with perfectly fine performances. Really, and you might have picked up on a theme here, The Front Runner is fine. It’s a Jay Roach style HBO Original Movie like Recount or Game Change posing as Oscar contender. That means in addition to a Jay Roach-like focus on showing us the behind the scenes reality of a famous political moment, The Front Runner is compelled to repeatedly pause to offer Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, and J.K. Simmons (playing Hart, Hart’s beleaguered wife, and Hart’s campaign manager) For-Your-Consideration speeches. So, there’s a lot of cinematic grandstanding here. Too much, actually.
Still, there are juicy ideas behind it all. Are we watching a portrait of the moment American journalism and democracy started its long downslide into the theater of the absurd? Or are we actually glimpsing a supposedly transformative political figure who was astonishingly naive about human nature, ignorant to the public’s appetite for the salacious? And is it really so bad that Hart’s exploits were exposed since his extramarital affairs did speak to his hypocrisy, preaching family values out of one side of his mouth while doing God knows what with the other?
Let’s back up.
The plot focuses on three weeks in the short life of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign. He begins the period as the consensus front runner and ends it in utter disgrace, brought down by scandal when one newspaper decides to defy decades of journalistic norms and actually report on a politician’s sex life. They’d all been gossiping privately about Hart’s alleged affairs anyway. Once he’s caught romancing a young model-turned-pharmaceuticals-rep at a Florida party on a yacht called Monkey Business, the Miami Herald, led by reporters played by Kevin Pollak, Bill Burr, and Mike Judge, decides the details are too juicy to pass up. So, they rush out a story in time for their Sunday edition. Without fact-checking. Or waiting even a single day to interview the girl in question, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton).
It’s an individual scandal Hart can almost survive due to the shoddy nature of the Herald’s journalism, but once all other publications, even the Ben Bradlee-led (Alfred Molina) Washington Post, and TV news programs take the ball and run with it Hart is ultimately sunk by his consistent underestimation of what he was actually up against.
A Midwestern boy from Ottawa, Kansas and now headquartered just outside Denver, Colorado, Jackman’s version of Hart is essentially a policy wonk who just happens to be have the good looks of a TV star and political instincts of a JFK. He does things no other politician would, like announce his candidacy in the snow capped mountains of Colorado instead of in some drab ballroom, and has a real knack for speaking in a way voters can understand. But he has no interest in ever talking about himself and doesn’t understand why anyone would care to hear his story. The people of his hometown show up for an early campaign stop hoping to find inspiration and instead hear him deliver a policy speech on economics. Talking about policy is him at his most comfortable.
Some on his campaign, especially Simmons, find this part of him endlessly frustrating while others relate to Hart’s idealistic view of the way politics should be. However, they all end up in direct conflict with him when the scandal breaks and he turns his rage not just on the press but also on them for ever daring to ask such unimportant questions, even behind closed doors. It’s none of their business, he bellow, forgetting their literal business is to get him elected which means they need all the facts in order to weather the scandal.
That means The Front Runner has an awful lot of Hugh Jackman simply exploding at people for asking questions he doesn’t like because they make him look bad or he doesn’t feel they should be asked at all. It begs the question of why exactly we’re supposed to be mourning his political downfall.
Not surprisingly, then, the women of the film steal the show. Vera Farmiga does a solid The Good Wife impression, standing behind her man publicly while loathing, yet also still loving him privately. The only prominent female member of Hart’s campaign staff has a real long night of the soul over what to make of it all. And Sara Paxton nails a mid-movie showcase illustrating the way Hart took advantage of Donna Rice (the affair began as a job interview for a campaign position) and how the Hart campaign eventually and quite heartlessly threw her to the wolves.
Even with those areas of strengths, The Front Runner is too often guilty of simply having its characters speak the themes of the movie, thus making us understand the message without totalling feeling it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
An HBO Original Movie posing as an Oscar contender, The Front Runner begins in both the newsrooms of America and in the offices of a rising political star, showcasing how those two forces used to support one another and ends with the two sides newly sworn enemies. That point is made quite clear, if perhaps too bluntly. Overall, The Front Runner is an interesting watch for political junkies and/or anyone with a soft spot for films showcasing the hustle and bustle of journalism and politics, but it is not at all the – wait for it – awards front runner some had hoped for.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
In the past year, we’ve seen a Tom Hanks version of Ben Bradlee (in The Post) who fights for the necessity of the fourth estate to speak truth to power and now a near-retirement version played by Alfred Molina (The Front Runner) who sadly acquiesces to the rise of tabloid journalism. One is shown to be a champion, the other a reluctant enabler. Complicated legacy, all of that without mentioning the version from All the President’s Men.