A film review by Craig J. Koban December 11, 2018

THE FRONT RUNNER j
j
     

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

 

 

 

Politicians 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.  

 

 

 

Widely considered 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 place. 

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 film. 

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. 

  H O M E