The Front Runner

2019-03-29 07:37
Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner.


Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman stars as the charismatic politician Gary Hart for Academy Award®-nominated director Jason Reitman in the new thrilling drama The Front Runner. The film follows the rise and fall of Senator Hart, who captured the imagination of young voters and was considered the overwhelming front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign was sidelined by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice. As tabloid journalism and political journalism merged for the first time, Senator Hart was forced to drop out of the race – events that left a profound and lasting impact on American politics and the world stage.


There is something almost adorably quaint about The Front Runner. This little film about a presidential front runner who was caught by the press having an elicit affair and whose entire political career collapses as a result may have been set just thirty years ago but it may as well have been set three hundred years ago. And on the moon. 

We live, after all, in a time where the current US president allegedly paid a porn star $130 000 as hush money to keep quiet the affair they had while his wife was heavily pregnant; a president who was caught on tape bragging about how he can freely "grab women by the pussy" and who has had nearly twenty separate women bringing sexual abuse allegations against him; a president who has lost none of the backing of his party and his supporters despite any of it. 

This same president once bragged that he could walk down fifth avenue, shoot someone dead in broad daylight and not lose a single vote – and on this, at least, he was probably entirely right. The idea of holding a public official to certain moral standards (obviously, the less said about South Africa’s own government the better) has, in the past few years, eroded to such an extent that a film that explores such a concept seems, in turn, nostalgic, obsolete and like very far-fetched science fiction. 

This is both a strength of The Front Runner and, ultimately, its biggest downfall. However, refreshing it is to see such ideals dealt with in (what looks like) fiction, it also prevents the film from being particularly riveting. Filmed with a certain hand-held, cinéma-vérité style with almost the only music present being diegetic (as in coming from a source on-screen rather than from an external score or pop soundtrack) by director, Jason Reitman, and cinematographer, Eric Steelberg, the film is clearly following in the grand tradition of "watchdog of the people" films like All the President’s Men (speaking of now looking quaint: Watergate) and more recent fare like The Post but, despite those films being set in the 1970s, there is an urgency and a timeliness to them that isn’t in this film set over a decade later.     

This isn’t to say that the questions posed by the film are uninteresting or that the film isn’t well-enough made but the stakes seem so small and the moral quandaries so last century that it never quite makes the jump from a well written, directed and acted reminder of simpler times to a truly compelling drama-thriller. That it also feels like it barely speaks to 21st century audiences may be the fault of the film too but, more worryingly, it’s probably mostly to do with how far the political landscape has fallen (and not just in the US of A) in just a few years.

More’s the pity that external events have lessened the impact of The Front Runner (though, to be fair, I question what exactly Reitman and his co-writers, Matt Bai – on whose book it is based – and James Carson saw in the material that made them want to tell it now of all times) because there’s actually plenty to like here. Hugh Jackman leads a very strong cast, including Vera Farmiga, Alfred Molina and a suitably, cantankerously funny J.K. Simmons, and he impresses in what is one of his least likeable roles in, well, forever. Hart looks like a saint these days, what with him being a politician with his ideals in the right place, a brain in his head and actual plans to have those ideals realised, but he was – at least as portrayed here – a prickly and brusquely private guy with a short temper and an often-shocking lack of judgement.The script, too, isn’t quite up to, say, Aaron Sorkin but it’s very good. Sharp, witty and able to pack something of an emotional punch when it needs to, it lives up to the complexities of the questions the film raises and to the many different shades of its nominal protagonist. It does a particularly fine job – along with the very fine actors and director, of course – of capturing the way the press and politicians alike thoroughly destroy Donna Rice, Hart’s young mistress (a remarkably effective and affecting, Sara Paxton), with a brutally cold indifference. 

She may have made a colossally stupid mistake but this bright and promising young woman is a casualty of the growing war between the media and those in and/ or seeking power (echoes of a certain White House intern in the ‘90s abound) and the film is so effective in these scenes that it’s hard not to wish that the whole thing was about her. Somewhat immoral politicians seem rather passée in a period when politics have been hijacked by a rampant and unapologetic amorality but the story of a young woman, in over her head, as she is caught between the fourth estate and those it’s supposed to hold accountable, is rife with potential. 

As it is, those scenes to add some real emotional power to a film that mostly feels oddly under-wrought. As it is, The Front Runner is a very solid bit of political drama but it lacks the resonance and relevance to make it a must-see for anyone but junkies of American political history.

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