THE FRONT RUNNER ½
R, 113 mins.
2018, R, 113 mins.
Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart / Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart / J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon / Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee / Sara Paxton as Donna Rice / Kaitlyn Dever as Andrea Hart / Ari Graynor as Ann Devroy / Mike Judge as Jim Savage / Toby Huss as Billy Broadhurst / Kevin Pollak as Bob Martindale
Directed by Jason Reitman / Written by Reitman, Matt Bai, and Jay Carson, based on the book by Bai
having their careers tainted by scandals involving adulterous affairs
hardly seems so shocking these days.
In some respects, their professional lives are hardly affected at
all. President Bill Clinton
managed to finish two terms as the Commander-in-Chief during the 90s after
a much publicized affair, and the current President managed to even get
elected after being caught red handed in an embarrassing audio recording
condoning sexual assault. But
the larger issue of how men in unfathomable places of power both treat and
endeavor to control women is as timely of an issue as ever.
This, of course, brings me to Jason Reitman's THE FRONT RUNNER, a historical drama that tries to perform an autopsy, so to speak, on the failed presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart, whom in the late 1980's look poised to take the Democratic nomination and later possibly the White House, that is until reports of an extramarital affair during his run forced him out of the race.
the so-called "front runner" to become the leader of the free
world, Hart's withdrawing from the Presidential campaign in May of 1987
sent political and social shockwaves, and led to questions as to
whether or not a candidate's personal life was fair game for
coverage...and whether his questionable moral choices outside of a
campaign should be used against him in being judged as a worthy candidate.
There's an intrinsically fascinating story to be told about Hart's
campaign and ultimate disgrace, and THE FRONT RUNNER dives into the
multitude of thorny ethical questions about privacy and the power of the
press to intrude upon one's private life.
Unfortunately, Reitman's handling of this potentially rich material
is half baked at best, and when all is said and done, the film comes off
as frustratingly one-sided in its attack on targets. It raises worthy issues, but seems woefully simplistic in
offering up a thought provoking examination of them.
Hart (played by
Hugh Jackman, sporting a beyond-obvious fake wig, but in a deeply
committed performance) is introduced in THE FRONT RUNNER as a dedicated
and passionate Colorado Senator that ends up losing to Walter Mondale in
the primaries in 1984. Flashforward
three years and Hart makes a triumphant return and is now considered the
odds on favorite to take the Democratic ticket. He relatively had it all: charisma, likeability, youthful
good looks, and a fiery passion for wanting to make America and the larger
world a better place. And he
seemed mostly unstoppable on the campaign front.
Unfortunately for him, his entire run came crashing down when a
newspaper published a nasty expose on a perceived adulterous fling he had
with a much younger woman, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), who was seen by
reporters entering and leaving his Washington home.
Hart claimed that their relationship was platonic, and stubbornly
avoided all other confrontations on the subject. All of the defensive posturing in the world couldn't save
him, and with mounting pressures from all angles and levels, Hart
eventually withdrew from the race, worried that a continued press focus on
what he considered tabloid fodder would only further hurt his relationship
with his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). He
would never run for President again.
THE FRONT RUNNER
gets off to a resoundingly solid start not only in terms of Reitman
pitch perfectly capturing the period details of the era, but also in his
abilities to show the initial and unbridled enthusiasm of Hart's
supporters during the early stages of his campaign.
There's an absolutely masterful shot that opens the film, all
seemingly done in one long take, that has Reitman introducing us to most
of the key members of Hart's team during the night of the 1984 Democratic
convention (the smooth like butter shot shifts from inside a news van and
then out to the massive crowd outside and ultimately panning far upwards
to a hotel window that has Hart looking out and evaluating his destiny).
It's a sensational manner of opening film, not to mention an
economic one in terms of establishing the historical particulars, the key
players involved, and also the stakes.
One a basic
level, Reitman does a reasonably good job of establishing the set of
circumstances that led to Hart's downfall as a one-time Presidential
candidate as well as highlighting the relative power of the press to do
massive amounts of irrecoverable harm with one simple story.
Now, the Miami Herald of the time did, in fact, publish the then
polarizing story of Hart's alleged affair with Rice, and they did so
without much tangible evidence to back up such large and damaging claims.
There's a credible case to be made that these journalists perhaps
didn't completely act on good faith, drawing two and two together without
all of the facts present. Hart,
on the other hand, was no innocent babe in the woods either.
He was a happily married man and the center of a large political
spotlight that made the unforgivable mistake of taking an ill-advised solo
trip on a yacht (laughably and regrettably named "Monkey
Business") where he met and supposedly perused Rice.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and one of the great
political/historical what if's emerges if one ponders how things would
have played out if Hart just stayed away from that yacht in the first
All of this
brings me to one of the largest issues I had with THE FRONT RUNNER: It
doesn't really provide a fair and balanced portrait of the back stage
drama that was Hart's fall from political prominence and journalistic
integrity run amok while on a path to netting the next big story.
Was Hart is own biggest enemy?
Was he solely responsible for what happened to him, or was it the
seedier impulses of the press that seemed to be favoring character
assassination story angles versus campaign coverage itself?
THE FRONT RUNNER should have been an endlessly captivating
portrait of unsound choices on both sides of the fence, but instead
Reitman and company seem to paint a somewhat unsavory defense of Hart as
the real victim here, which rings false.
He's portrayed as a high minded and idealistic man of intelligence
and purpose that wanted real change in America, but the film seems
absolutely unwilling to tackle this man as a liar and cheater.
THE FRONT RUNNER is obtusely sympathetic to Hart without really
diving into all of his nagging flaws.
If anything, Hart is a vague cipher in his own film: He doesn't
seem the least bit bothered by reports of his infidelities, and his lack
of understanding as to how they could hurt hum and others around him - not
to mention him coming off as frustratingly defensive about it in the
process - paradoxically makes him come off a quite unsympathetic in the
This is all too
bad, because THE FRONT RUNNER boasts good era specific production values
and a wonderfully assembled cast doing what they can with the material
presented. Jackman - despite
looking and sounding nothing like the real Hart - manages to create a
convincing portrait of a doomed man whose hope for his political future is
completely undone by some unwise personal choices.
Vera Farmiga is reliably potent as Hart's suffering wife, even
though she's not given nearly as much screen time as her character
deserves under the circumstances. J.K.
Simmons is also a standout as the oftentimes hilariously cantankerous
campaign manager that has a penchant for dispensing F-bomb riddled orders.
One standout in the film is Mamoudou Athie as a Washington Post
reporter that's working the Hart campaign beat that has to start asking
some very tough questions about the candidate's morality while further
challenging the press' right to peruse such salacious stories.
I don't think
that THE FRONT RUNNER was aiming to lock its crosshairs of blame
completely on the press for causing Hart's downfall, but the resulting
film certainly comes off as such. The bigger issues of the public's right to known whether or
not a candidate for President is a grade-A adulterous loser seems to be
somewhat sidestepped in this narrative, especially for how it shows Hart
in far too rosy of a light for my tastes.
Hart had the makings of a great and respected leader, but the
notion that, deep down, he might have been a truly deplorable husband that
could have willfully lied to his family about his indiscretions is pretty
hard to overlook, but THE FRONT RUNNER manages to do just that.
And that's precisely why Reitman's film lacks texture and nuance,
and there's a great film to be made of this challenging and complex
material. The central message
of THE FRONT RUNNER is that a good man was ruined by a salivating press
looking to sell papers by drumming up soap opera worthy headlines. What
the film doesn't do very well is to convince us why Hart was a good man
in the first place.