Imagine a world where personal indiscretions can undo a person with good intentions and optimistic, ambitious ideas for the future. It may not be that hard, as America has become a place where some much less favorable people are essentially rewarded for bad behavior, in spite of their very public misdeeds. The Front Runner examines a time when a person making all the right choices regarding politics failed to realize how personal actions and rise of interest in such things from the public could lead to a downfall. Set to be released on the day of 2018’s midterm elections, there’s a case to be made for the apparent relevance of The Front Runner, it’s just a shame director Jason Reitman holds back from providing a more in-depth examination of his subject.
Following a 1984-set prologue that establishes both the potential of Democratic senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) and the Robert Altman-esque style this film intends to channel throughout, The Front Runner places focus on the 1988 presidential campaign. More specifically, we watch the three-week period that covers Hart’s announcement to run for president and the subsequent derailment when the press catches him in an extramarital affair.
It is a testament to Jackman’s commitment as an actor that he can move the dial just a few degrees on his persona to tone down his natural charisma and still be just as effective. Here’s a low-key performance that matches what one would expect from a political candidate doing his best to make his work exciting to an audience. Hart is still portrayed as great at getting across messaging in understandable terms, as his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, also terrific) points out, but it’s this other side of Hart that becomes more of a curiosity.
30 years ago, the National Inquirer existed, and the paparazzi was out there, but professional journalism was still a ways away from click-bait style headlines. The Front Runner may not be depicting the exact time when things took a sharp turn, but the way the film portrays the amount of viciousness that came towards Hart, once a possible scandal started to emerge from underneath his professional and morally conscious persona, the scenarios presented start to feel very familiar.
Now there’s a big difference between the sorts of offenses committed by various political and entertainment figures, and it’s not up to me to determine what kind of public outcry deserves to turn into actual punishments. However, it should be up to the film to take some sort of stance, and The Front Runner shies away from this. The film often chooses to coast along instead.
We see Hart get very angry whenever conversations turn towards his personal life, but what’s behind that? The man naively believed the public would not care about affair enough to attempt to downplay and avoid most discussion of it, but what else comes with this? While Jackman effectively conveys the state of a person caught in a situation that he slowly realizes he can’t sit out on, Reitman and co-screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson never capitalize on the opportunity to address that Hart’s misconduct makes him more than just a figure whose great ideas are not the only thing that matters.
His affair matters enough to warrant the attention of the media and the public, but the film is a bit too loose on where it wants the audience to fall on Hart. It’s not as though we need a level of ambiguity here for the sake of knowing Hart was some kind of nice guy, as he is established to be a problematic person. I’m not asking for The Front Runner to push itself into the same territory as George Clooney’s The Ides of March for some form of villainous clarity, but brushing past certain areas doesn’t help either.
There are clear attempts to have a broader perspective on things. A conversation between reporters (male and female) reveal opinions concerning Hart that could easily merit more attention. Effective work by Molly Ephraim as Irene Keller, a member of Hart’s staff, does a lot to support Sara Paxton as Donna Rice, the woman Hart had the affair with. Watching the two of them attempt to avoid harder times, as the media goes after everyone for the sake of the story and headlines becomes a tragic portion of the film. There are also extended segments devoted to journalists.
We watch both The Washington Post, led by Alfred Molina’s Ben Bradlee, and the Miami Herald (led by Mike Judge and Kevin Pollack?) approach Hart in different ways. I mentioned Robert Altman earlier, and that’s because of the shifts in perspective and overlapping dialogue. It allows for a natural sense of conversations on display, which is never more apparent than when dealing with the various teams of actors playing out these scenarios of how to be dealing with the Hart story. Choices made on what to pursue lead to urgent actions taken on the campaign sides. It’s elements like this that at least make The Front Runner a well-performed, adult drama worth looking at.
Additionally, this is a film that accurately captures its space in time. Thanks to a good sense of lighting and proper production design, The Front Runner is less about poking fun at costume designs of the times and hairstyles, and more focused on interior decoration, piles of beer bottles and dirty ashtrays, let alone a lived-in feel to convey the overwhelming nature of a political campaign. These are details much appreciated when it comes to watching the movie mostly float through scenes in its non-showy manner.
I still wish The Front Runner took a harder stance on the kind of person Gary Hart was at that point in time. Vera Farmiga only gets so many moments to shine as his wife, a character who could have best helped to explore this aspect. However, as a biopic working more as a depiction of how politics and media cross paths and have a significant effect, The Front Runner is never unengaging. It’s well-acted, with some witty dialogue moments, and doesn’t come up short as far as laying a specific idea out there to think about when considering today’s climate. That in mind, as much as this film wants the audience to look at the issues, I wish it did better analyzing its own.