The Pitch: In 1984, a relative Democratic unknown named Gary Hart came shockingly close to a national party nomination, on the strength of an issues-focused, grassroots campaign. By 1988, he was widely and statistically considered the favorite to earn the blue-ticket nomination against George H.W. Bush. As the opening titles of The Front Runner suggest, however, a lot can happen in three weeks. What starts as a Miami Herald investigation into a tip about Hart (Hugh Jackman) and a mistress quickly spirals into something much bigger, and soon Hart is forced to deal with a firestorm from a very new media, a 24-hour cycle hungry for as much news as it can possibly make. All the while, Hart attempts to finish the campaign, even as he and his team begin to realize that they might have lost control of the dialogue.
News, Real and Otherwise: The Front Runner is the sort of historical biopic which insists on its present-day relevance at every turn. It’s in the way that Hart sneers at the mere notion of a politician’s personal life being relevant to their leadership qualifications. It’s in the way that director Jason Reitman goes out of his way to kick up the perception of “tabloid” media as an amorphous, morality-free collection of would-be paparazzos calling themselves political reporters. It’s in the way that the screenplay, by Reitman and Matt Bai and Jay Carson, goes out of its way to repeatedly highlight how slam-dunk electable Hart was, at least until a media more interested in being first than being decent entered the picture. At every step, The Front Runner wants audiences to draw parallels between the American political process of 30 years ago and the present-day state of things. It’s just ultimately thoughtless about what it chooses to argue within them.
After all, the film’s opinion on the media’s “proper” role seems to shift with the scene. To the slick-talking, endlessly sure-footed Hart, reporters are a resource to work with, and work over. To his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), they’re the scourge of any decent presidential candidate. To Reitman, they’re a walking symbol for whatever hyper-current dialogue he finds himself wishing to play out within his recent-period setting. Is it amoral for a pair of Miami Herald reporters (Steve Zissis and Bill Burr) to hide outside Hart’s D.C. townhouse, waiting for a story to happen? Do Hart’s indiscretions matter to the greater political process? Members of his campaign team engage in hand-writing dialogues about male power and personal ethics but reach little in the way of conclusive evidence. But all the while, that dastardly media is lurking nearby, staking out the entirety of Hart’s Colorado property to harass his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever).
Sins of the Father: It’s clear who The Front Runner blames for the end of Gary Hart’s campaign, but what ultimately undoes any chance of Reitman’s film succeeding either as satire or as prescient commentary is its insistence on indicting virtually every guilty party except for Hart. The Altman-esque exchanges between bureau tables full of journalists and political hucksters say a lot without ultimately saying much at all, playing out both-sides arguments about the media’s role in politics and the responsibilities of candidates to the public without circling around to consider the most central conundrum on hand.
Gary Hart’s presidential run ended because he repeatedly cheated on his wife, and then alternated between bloviation and outright anger when confronted about it by journalists. Yet as The Front Runner sees it, Hart was the kind of salt-of-the-earth visionary who could have Saved Politics, if only the forces of greed hadn’t conspired to slander his decent name. It’s the same rhetoric that emerges whenever apologists of Bill Clinton’s conduct argue for the greater good. And even if the film occasionally attempts to hedge its own perspective on the matter, it still contorts to allow space for Hart the misunderstood wunderkind. Lee makes mention of understood “allowances” throughout their marriage. Donna (Sara Paxton), the young lover in question, wonders about her safety and her prospects on Hart’s campaign in equal measure, at least at first. Hart responds to implications that his philandering could affect his presidential prospects with bellowing fits of righteous indignation. And even when The Front Runner gets around to considering whether maybe it’s Hart who dug his own grave, it never stays there for too long. It’s more concerned with what it has to say about an alternate future than it does about the fraught present.
The Verdict: If there’s a facet of The Front Runner that justifies the film’s seemingly purpose-void hand-wringing about protecting liberal icons, it’s the central performance by Jackman. As Hart, he’s alternately strapping and conniving, a seemingly kindhearted man who’s also smart enough to see straight through somebody in seconds and get whatever he wants out of them. While the film keeps his indiscretions almost exclusively behind closed doors, there’s a palpable disconnect between Hart the future DNC electoral pick and Hart the flop-sweating upper-class male desperately clutching onto his career as it slips through his fingers. Jackman draws this tension out throughout, a desperation lurking just behind his eyes even when he’s watching the noose tighten.
There’s a great deal of talk along the lines of worrying about “the candidates we deserve” throughout The Front Runner, and there’s a strangeness to the film’s attempt at prescience along these lines. To consider 1988 a more politically innocent time in America involves a narrowly selective reading of modern political context, and yet this is one of the many implications that Reitman’s film pursues. The Front Runner is a naively misguided product of panicked, desperate modern times. But perhaps even worse, at least for the type of film it wants to be, it lands somewhere between irrelevant and a woeful misreading of the room. To incriminate A Current Affair in the present state of things is to yell into a void, hoping the echo will come back.
Where’s It Playing?: The Front Runner is now playing in select cities, and will expand nationwide in the coming weeks.