Despite all appearances to the contrary, it’s incredibly hard to release a political film in 2019. Not only will it be broadly criticised for being either unsubtle or tone-deaf, depending on which side of things the commentator leans themselves, but the daily, or hourly, news cycle doesn’t exactly leave viewers chomping at the bit to see more politicians acting poorly on screen.
One thing that The Front Runner – the new film from Juno director Jason Reitman starring Hugh Jackman as presidential candidate Gary Hart – has going for it that a film like Vice doesn’t, however, is that this is a story fewer people know about. Outside of America, the minutiae of presidential campaigns hasn’t always been something that is scrutinised endlessly online, and so Hart’s tale of woe is one that contains tension and key surprises that add to its overall message.
Senator Gary Hart seemed like a shoo-in for democratic candidate in 1988, having captured America’s attention with his salt of the earth demeanor and natural charisma. When he challenges the press to document his life outside of official campaign activity to prove his moral integrity, however, things backfire spectacularly. Caught with young woman Donna Rice at his home, the ensuing scandal results in what could be argued as the start of modern-day tabloid journalism as applied to politics.
But this final point is where The Front Runner gets into a muddle. There are clear lines to be drawn between the celebritisation of politics and the modern dilemma of having an actual celebrity as president, but the film seems either reluctant or unable to draw them. And so, we come to the inevitable portion of this review where the film is dubbed both unsubtle and tone deaf, commenting on modern-day discussions while also demonising the press for attempting to uncover the unsavoury truth about a man who could become leader of the free world.
In this case, when all evidence points to Hart having had a consensual (though power dynamics leave this debateable) affair with Rice, the film has a solid point, but its very presence in cinemas at a time when far worse men are doing far worse things in the shadows make the framing of the film’s final monologue absolutely baffling. Context matters.
The monologue happened in real life, of course, and was broadcast to millions. There’s no getting around that, but a film’s job is to frame the truth and turn individual facts into a story with impact for modern audiences. By refusing to say whether Hart was wrongfully treated by the press or simply trying to come out of a bad situation with some dignity, Reitman leaves the audience wanting for conviction.
On the other hand, though it’s slightly jarring to see Jackman play a less than heroic and likeable character after The Greatest Showman and Logan have characterised the last few years of his career, he’s the perfect choice. The downfall of Hart captured public attention so quickly precisely because he didn’t seem like the type. It’s a tale as old as time – we are always most interested in a scandal if it comes from an unexpected source, and bonus points if we can demonise a woman in the process.
The greatest strength of the film is its brief treatment of Rice’s side of the story, as she is manipulated not by the men around her, but the apparently sympathetic woman promising to help her.
Jackman is surrounded by equally strong performances from Vera Farmiga, JK Simmons, Molly Ephraim, Mamoudou Athie and more. The Front Runner is littered with brilliant turns from actors both seasoned and up and coming, but unfortunately the film can’t quite match their efforts.
The idea is that the viewer needs to decide for themselves whether the press has any right to the private details of public figures’ lives but, in 2019, that ship has sailed. By design, it’s a debate from another time, and so despite strong performances and worthy intentions, The Front Runner is ultimately unsatisfying.
The Front Runner is out now