How did we get here? I’m sure many Americans are asking that this election season as they hold their breath and pray that this is the beginning of removing the carnival-like madness that has become the modern body politic. Still, Jason Reitman and Hugh Jackman think they have the answers—or at least they want it to appear that way with the opening of The Front Runner.
As a political biopic that attempts to trace the first sensationalized and highly publicized sex scandal in presidential politics, The Front Runner is a study of the downfall of Gary Hart, the one-time leader of the Democratic Primaries pack in 1988. Briefly considered the next man who would be president, and who could defeat the impending Republican machine backing then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Gary Hart saw his political fortunes (and life) implode in spectacular fashion after discovering newspaper journalists hiding in the proverbial bushes outside of his townhouse in D.C. A townhouse where he had been entertaining a possible mistress. No one could prove what happened inside, but the obsession to know led to the destruction of a presidential hopeful who looked like a winner in terms of policy.
It is in this conceit that Reitman pitches The Front Runner as much as a morality play about the fallibility of American media as it is about a recurring flaw in American politicians. As Gary Hart, Hugh Jackman gives off a Jeffersonian charm and statuesque appeal. He exudes the type of affability that could have the ambition to reach the highest office in the land, as well as the hubris to believe that otherwise the rules need not apply.
Zeroed in on the several weeks before the Iowa Caucus, the film paints a sympathetic portrait of Hart without ever really getting inside of his head. Perhaps by design, the film wishes to ask moviegoers to judge him from afar, just as voters and journalists did in 1988, but now with the knowledge of where this kind of voyeuristic fascination ends. The man remains elusive as his exasperated family and staff watch his destiny burn. As such, the film is ultimately a collection of well-meaning but often stilted Socratic dialogues between Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) and beleaguered staffers unhappy about how far they have to dig out from this media distraction—as well as the media itself, represented primarily by a very slap-and-dash operation in the film’s version of The Miami Herald.
For it was The Herald who staked out Hart’s townhouse and saw Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) enter the home, and it was also The Herald who failed to see Donna leave while still hunting Hart down a back alley where they demanded to know if he was having an affair behind the back of his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga).
As a subject, the downfall of Gary Hart feels both frustratingly timely and antiquated, which plays to Reitman’s point. Thunderstruck at the idea that he would be held accountable for his dalliances in a way that Jack Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt never were, Hart cannot ever grasp in the film’s running time why his love life has become front page news. Like Brutus’ inability to see his Rome having been already supplanted by Caesar and Antony’s mob, Hart cannot predict the political environment he’s mired in will one day become dominated by superficial gossip and political leaders defined solely by their vicarious identities, as opposed to their ideas. Yet compared to the sex scandals that would rock the White House 10 years after the film’s setting, or the one 20 years later where a POTUS’ toxic identity allows affairs with porn stars to be treated as little more than smiling late night fodder, Gary Hart’s sins look tame.
For Reitman and co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson, this is the moment Pandora’s Box was opened. Hence why if the film has any strong and clear-cut message, it is about the blame held by journalists, here represented by an ineffectual Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), the Herald reporter who first got a tip on the affair, as well as his smug editor, composite character Bob Martindale (Kevin Pollak). In fact, the film is littered with composite characters who should in theory allow the filmmakers to say what they really think, yet the film seems wholly unsure what greater position to take other than a vague disapproval on all houses. But such an overly cautious approach, coupled with blanketed on-the-nose moralizing, plays less Shakespearian than it does like a disappointed parent at a PTA meeting.
Thus there’s A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), the ethical Washington Post journalist who feels dirty about asking Hart of his sex life, and there’s Simmons too, who plays his fictionalized DNC politico as a cross between James Carville and J. Jonah Jameson. He believes Gary’s right when he says this shouldn’t be what politics is about, but he can’t get the politician out of his own way to see that he nevertheless needs to play the game. And in the film’s best subplot, there’s Molly Ephraim as Irene Kelly, the fictional campaign aide forced to allegedly help prepare Donna Rice for the political hurricane that’s coming her way, yet is really using a sympathetic ear to find all the information she can to smear Donna Rice as a liar and floozy, even though they and the media machine sought her out.
When the film examines concise examples of unethical behavior, Reitman’s script and direction finds the vigor of an orator standing tall on his soap box. There is something self-evidently repellent about a young woman being prepared by another woman as a sacrificial lamb for the incoming maelstrom of oversimplifications and patriarchal dismissals. However, the movie is indecisive in its own right at holding its characters to account. While the smearing of Donna Rice is depicted as vile, the film can only play devil’s advocate with itself when other characters debate whether a politician using his power to seemingly imply he’d offer a job to a sexual partner is any less toxic than the muckrakers hiding outside the door.
In the #MeToo era especially, the film opens a can of worms that is bigger than it’s prepared to address, and so becomes as slippery as a politician when it is time to assign individual responsibility for the larger broken system. Jackman gives an endearing performance, and Farmiga a tragic one as his embarrassed wife, but as with Simmons and his lieutenants, there’s a sense that they and all the characters in the film are speaking to the camera and not each other; they’re trying to convince you of a platform that is ultimately fuzzy. Even with an excellent ensemble and glossy sheen, the result is a stump speech that fails to persuade.