The Front Runner, 2018.
Directed by Jason Reitman.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Kaitlyn Dever, Alfred Molina, Toby Huss, Kevin Pollak, Molly Ephraim, Sara Paxton, Jenna Kanell, Ari Graynor, Courtney Ford, Bill Burr, Chris Coy, Mike Judge and Steve Zissis.
American Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1988 is derailed when he’s embroiled in a scandalous love affair.
Based on ‘All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid’ by Matt Bai, The Front Runner is certainly an interesting piece of history. It tells the true story of how Colorado senator Gary Hart dramatically fell from grace in a period of three weeks, having been the front runner for the 1988 Democratic president nomination, after an alleged affair was falsely uncovered by the press. Obviously he never got near the White House as a certain George H.W. Bush became president in 1989, and the Democrats moved on to Bill Clinton for their next shot four years later.
These dates, however, are also the film’s issue: it just doesn’t seem relevant. In a world with Donald Trump as president, this scandal doesn’t seem nearly so outrageous as to compare with the many allegations against his conduct. It also appears as though little effort has been made to make the film more relevant to a modern audience in a ‘post-truth’ political era. This situation in 1988 did, however, mark a sort of watershed moment for when the media began reporting stories on a politician’s conduct that had the power to derail a career.
The Front Runner’s opening scene is difficult to follow, as the camera pans over various staffers, politicians and reporters at the 1984 Democratic National Convention: you can’t hear much of what’s being said, other than by reporters, which is surely a deliberate attempt to re-create the hullabaloo as Hart concedes to Walter Mondale – but it is annoying. There are lots of players in the story to be introduced, including Hart’s team and the staff of two newspapers, and this only makes it harder to keep track of them.
There are several recognisable faces among the supporting cast, but sadly many don’t get the chance to do much – Alfred Molina only gets a few scenes. J.K. Simmons makes a splash as a bullish Bill Dixon, and undoubtedly has some of the best lines as he pushes his team to sell Hart in the best possible way (he makes a sarcastic dig about Gary Hart having been born as “relatable”).
Hugh Jackman as Hart is certainly pushing his acting in a different direction, relying on none of his usual charm and exuberance (his last film was, after all, The Greatest Showman). His part is more serious and dour than we usually see him, and a little sleazy – it’s an unusual choice, but he’s good. Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee, does most of the emotional heavy lifting in The Front Runner, proving again what a capable actress she is.
The Front Runner generally seems stuck in second gear with its story. It’s a basic discovery of an affair (if this one was false, Hart definitely picked up his reputation as a womaniser elsewhere), and it seems to fizzle out once the papers have printed the story. It’s a shame, as the script is witty and dry in places, and many actors suggest their characters would be more three dimensional if they had the time onscreen. Crudely put, The Front Runner smacks of being a drawn-out episode of The West Wing, but with less juice.
The film may well resonate best with Americans who remember the events of 1984 unfolding themselves, otherwise the film may well struggle to find an audience.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★