November 20, 2018

The Front Runner

Grade: C +
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, and Mamoudou Athie
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.

The Front Runner desperately wants to impart a message, but it just doesn’t know which one. Exhuming the sex (?) scandal that derailed Senator Gary Hart’s hope-filled presidential campaign in 1988, writer-director Jason Reitman wants to take a lot of people to task: the media, the political industrial complex, men, etc. But the character at the center of this drama suffers the lightest scrutiny. If you thought The Front Runner was going to tell you something more about Gary Hart, then think again.

The odds-on favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Hart (Hugh Jackman) was a darling of the idealized liberal elite, the Moses sent to lead the left out of eight years of Reagan wilderness. Hart is portrayed as alternately brilliant and idealistic, but also effete and self-centered. The operatives in his orbit, like campaign manager Bill Dixon (J. K. Simmons) and the young adults who drop everything to glom onto Hart’s cause, are devoted more to what Hart represents than the man himself.

Rumors that Hart might be a ladies man are tossed aside, and journalists who ask about them risk being castigated and ostracized. When fictitious Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) does just that, Hart dares him to “follow him around” (that real-life retort was actually issued to New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne). Unbeknownst to anyone, an anonymous tip that Hart is carrying on an adulterous affair has already led reporters for The Miami Herald to surveil the purported “other women,” Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), from Miami to Hart’s Washington, D.C. townhouse. The reporters confront Hart in a back alley, and the ensuing fallout ends Hart’s political career.

There’s a legitimate question about the newsworthiness of a politician’s privacy, about the balancing act between journalistic ethics and the public’s right to know. But with the benefit of contemporary hindsight, such queries seem quaint today. Whether or not Gary Hart’s private life was public business may have once been a serious debate; perhaps it still should be. But the genie is well out of the bottle, and Reitman offers nothing new to this issue other than hand-wringing and pearl-clutching.

On the surface, Reitman appears to hold Hart to account for his actions, chiefly during scenes featuring his long-suffered wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and Rice, both besigned by the media and a bevy of campaign workers trying futilely to manage a crisis. There are scenes where Lee takes Gary to task, and he appears to plead mea culpa. But Hart and Rice have never admitted a sexual relationship, and Reitman steadfastly, and oddly, stops short of showing otherwise. We never witness Hart or Rice conversing or in a private moment; Lee conspicuously chastises her husband for “flirting” for Rice and inviting her into their home, but no more. Moreover, Reitman never shows the infamous “Monkey Business” photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap aboard the infamous Florida yacht that broke open the scandal and appeared to contradict Hart’s denials.

The problem with Hart’s portrayal isn’t with Jackman, who is fine. It’s with the script, which seeks to project Hart as shrewd and above the fray, but actually shows him as smug and dismissive. Moreover, Reitman purports to portray Rice as a strong woman, but when she’s actually allowed to speak in the film, she’s made to come across as naive and flighty. We get a sense of everyone in the film except for the two central protagonists, and thus we never accept or embrace their plight or the notion that Hart’s downfall was a seminal moment in American political history. Hart, like The Front Runner, wanted to be about big ideas. Both neither appear willing or able to relate to their audience.