“I care about the sanctity of this process!”
Jason Reitman returns to the subject of politics for the first time since Thank You for Smoking debuted, and it’s obvious from the film’s opening that the director has moved on from the irreverent apathy of his debut. With The Front Runner, Reitman aims to emulate Robert Altman’s Nashville as his camera wanders in and through the proceedings at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. There Gary Hart concedes defeat, but he’ll be back he explains to a staffer, “the world changes when young people give a damn.” The events of this dramatization of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign won’t surprise anyone; everything ends just as you remembered or read about. In that regard, Reitman has a difficult time parsing something of interest out of the developments. So he focuses only on the three weeks that Hart was the candidate to beat for president in 1988.
Hart the man is an expert in policy, a skilled debater, and well-practiced at stump speeches, however, he’s not particularly interesting to write about. A suspicious looking phone call is all it takes for rumors of adultery to dominate the narrative. Tired of being pressed on the subject, Hart exasperatedly invites the writer profiling him to follow him around. He puts an authoritative stamp on the end of the conversation: anyone who does tail him will “be very bored.” Unbeknownst to him, the Miami Herald already was. After a weekend stay in a rental car, the Herald had all they needed to make the state of Gary Hart’s marriage a national talking point.
Hugh Jackman naturally draws the room and everyone around him to his center. It’s why he was so popular as Wolverine, and it’s how he led The Greatest Showman to a massive box-office haul. As Hart, however, Jackman pulls its back. The reticent public servant felt alienated from whom he’d serve, partly, because he devised his own alienation. Gary Hart legitimately wanted to improve voters lives but felt that the showmanship of campaigning for president was beneath him. Beneath the sanctity of the public agreement that government was based on, really. Still, this chronicle of Gary Hart is not a psychological profile, nor a sociological explanation for why that particular year dictated a change in what acceptable behavior was considered for presidents. Reitman merely presses for emphasis that Hart got a bad deal, or rather, left out of the same agreement that provided John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson with discretion. The Front Runner consistently references topical political events but keeps whatever opinion Reitman may have at arm’s length. A Washington Post reporter alludes to the 45th president in an aside with a colleague, but then has the associate reporter argue that a candidate’s sex life is no one’s concern. In doing so, the different takes are far apart that nothing blends together. One senses that Reitman wanted to make a film about the media taking a candidate down for not playing their game, for not playing up the corn dogs and state fairs, but he didn’t make that film. Instead, he asks whether morality matters in a political world.
Threads about the irresponsible portrayal of Donna Rice in the press are introduced as a piggyback on the #MeToo movement but left unrealized. Hart’s wife Lee, played by Vera Farmiga, is spared the humiliated wife role, fortunately. When Hart eventually makes that phone call that all politicians dread, Lee doesn’t crumble. Hart quietly shares how stupid this affair has made him feel for pity, Lee only tells him “good,” before hanging up. She saves her chance to humble him for when they share a room. Farmiga, along with the rest of the talented ensemble, are a major benefit to The Front Runner. In places where the film tries too closely to mimic Spotlight or The Post, actors like Ari Graynor, Bill Burr, Alfred Molina, and Mamoudou Athie pull back. Keeping Reitman’s attempts to relate everything onscreen to universally relatable themes something more human. J.K. Simmons, the secret weapon of Reitman’s other work, is left without much to work with as Hart’s beleaguered manager. Despite Jackman’s immersive turn as Hart, the rest of the film doesn’t match his efforts. Maybe an Oscar nomination for Best Actor will suffice.
Whether fair or not, The Front Runner‘s argument that things slid before is not appropriate for this time. Especially with the current occupant in the White House. The final act questions the press for probing too far but doesn’t really take Hart to task for his own culpability in his downfall. The Front Runner tries to make a Capra-esque profile of a man who couldn’t acknowledge his personal failings. Much like Gary Hart’s campaign, the film starts off in high-gear but barely manages to cross the finish line.