‘The Front Runner:’ Almost a Clear Winner, But Falls Just Short

Rating: 2.5/4

For 3 weeks in 1988, during the Democratic Primary, Senator Gary Hart of Colorado was the front runner. Within a span of 5 days, he would lose his lead in the polls, end his campaign, and never work in politics again. Director Jason Reitman takes this too Hollywood to be true story to not only profile Hart, but the environment that contributed to his downfall, as well. It’s a story of political intrigue, unscrupulous journalism, and a lack of accountability that mirrors our climate. Nevertheless, while The Front Runner gets the small details right, it lacks the wherewithal to know when it’s taking on too much. 

Reitman’s film doesn’t open in 88′. Instead, beginning in 84′, when an insurgent and unlikely campaign led by Gary Hart lost to Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee, because of the Wendy’s tagline, “Where’s the beef?” For a viewer of a certain age, the doubled reference will quickly orientate one to the period. However, for those under the age of 45, the year 1988′ feels like World War II. That’s the sort of headwind The Front Runner is fighting from the beginning. Gary Hart, for those of a certain age, has been lost to the annals of political history and so has the era in which he became notorious.

The film very quickly jumps from 84′ to 88′. Hart (Hugh Jackman), as with many politicians running for President for a second time, is more refined. His message is polished, he’s speaking confidently, and has a good repertoire with the media. It looks like he will be the next President. That belief is captured in the campaign staff, led by Campaign Manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). Reitman’s camera, through much of the film, is always veering around, picking up bits of this conversation and that. There’s rarely a defined focus. It’s left to the audience to decide that. Here, his shooting style has been compared to Robert Atlman’s Tanner 88′. No scene exemplifies that more than Dixon’s speech to his staff. As Dixon waxes about the importance of this campaign, the camera peers into an electrician untangling wires, staff mingling, and a pizza delivery guy waiting to be paid. The visual and prosaic concept is there for the film. The Front Runner gets these small realistic details right, gets the casting of the loud and quick-witted J.K. Simmons right, but it’s when the film moves to Hart’s downfall that it veers uncontrollably.  

Hart is a politician. He knows how to play the game, but he’s also fiercely private. His relationship with his wife is based on a mutual understanding. His wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), remains with him, suffering through his affairs with an agreement that she not be embarrassed. Hart bristles whenever his campaign staff nudges him to do People magazine covers to showcase his family life, or when he’s asked by reporters about his rocky marriage. The film subtly divides Hart’s reticence between a genuine belief that his private life is off limits and a fear of the damage it might cause. Farmiga has the best performance of the film, often walking the line between stinging rebuke and “devotion,” stoicism and dignity.  

And if Hart’s family life is one setting, then the campaign trail is the other. Hart has close relationships with many of the reporters. The 80’s and the eras before were different, in terms of how campaigns were covered. There was a mutual trust that certain areas were off limits. Hart develops an especially strong relationship with A.J. (Mamoudou Athie) and a slightly antagonistic one with Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis) of the Miami Herald. The two are represented as the current and future relationships between candidates and the press.

The third setting, albeit minor, is the newsroom. The scenes where Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and Bob Woodward (Spencer Garrett) are paling around, talking about their past dalliances, or the small arguments between A.J. and his female colleague are mostly superfluous. The Front Runner was partly inspired by All the President’s Men, and the reliance on these scenes appear to be a holdover from that. In reality, the conversations that happen in the newsroom could have been truncated exclusively to the campaign trail. It’s another instance of The Front Runner unnecessarily disorienting the viewer from the central settings, campaign trail and home, to cover an environment that it doesn’t have the time to cover sufficiently. In that regard, neither the campaign trail nor the newsroom are adequately examined.   

As some in the audience will know, Hart’s life became unraveled when he partied on a boat called Monkey Business (a name lampooned by Johnny Carson) and picked up Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Unbeknownst to Hart, after several weeks (and through an anonymous tip), Miami Herald reporters, Fielder and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr), stake out his townhouse to  catch a sight of him with his lover. When Hart is accosted in the alleyway, Jackman provides a moment that might net him a Best Actor nomination. By the way, Jackman nails this performance from beginning to end. But it’s in that alleyway scene, that moment where the previously confident Hart shrinks to confusion and pure indignity that Jackman channels the multivariate layers of his subject, the candidate, the philanderer, the privileged white male, and the human being. To the larger point, once again, The Front Runner gets the small details right. It finds itself in the burst of these sequence rather than the stringing of a plot.  

When the story breaks of Hart’s perceived infidelity, the film splits into several tracks. It distinguishes between the ethical duty of journalists to cover or not cover tabloid fodder, what responsibility Hart holds to his staff and family, and how much pity should be given to Rice (it should be a lot). Reitman and his screenwriters, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, want to balance the blame and questioning to every side. However, the overarching action for the film becomes Hart sparring with the media as his campaign fights for its political life. While not an unfair portrayal of the media, it is untimely. The three parties can’t control that, but it’s odd that they devote a large chunk of time to one of the campaign employees, Irene (Molly Ephraim), backstabbing Rice, yet Rice falls away for the last act of the film.

The film and its makers are deeply understanding of the character. Rice is a victim, probably the biggest victim. Sara Paxton plays her as every woman who’s had a relationship with a famous man blow back on her. Hart is never defined in the same way as Rice is, due to her gender, for the rest of her life. The dialogue between her and Irene, as they commiserate the fallibility and wretchedness of men, is sharp. Much of that is owed to producer Helen Estabrook, as she consulted on the script. And as Rice tries to comprehend her predicament through mascara soaked eyes, she becomes the human element of the film. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t more about her. Instead, the last act is solely how the media has stalked and antagonized Hart. Once again, the small details are there, but the need to cover everything makes for a film that covers very little.  

The film’s entire assertion that 88′ caused a seismic electoral shift is never completely founded, most because it’s out chasing other things. Also the screenwriters never pick sides, but in not leaning toward one or the other very few come out happy. When The Front Runner is working well, it’s a savvy and realistic portrayal of journalism and politics. When it’s often falling off, it’s when it is narratively looking under too many rocks. Reitman is very close to making The Front Runner into a clear winner, but like Hart, he falls just short.

An official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): 2018.

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