The Front Runner, 2018.
Directed by Jason Reitman.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Kaitlyn Dever, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge, Toby Huss, Kevin Pollak, Evan Castelloe, Jennifer Landon, John Bedford Lloyd, William Walker, Bill Burr, Jonny Pasvolsky, Spencer Garrett, Gabriel Manak, Lee Armstrong, Molly Ephraim, Courtney Ford, Mark O’Brien, Josh Brener, Tommy Dewey, Jenna Kanell, Chris Coy, Oliver Cooper, Mamoudou Athie, and Alex Karpovsky.
American Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1988 is derailed when he’s caught in a scandalous love affair.
Intentionally, there is a controlled mess of interactions unfolding inside and outside Democratic presidential candidate/US Senator Gary Hart’s campaign; his nomination is an inevitability, but much like the opening text tells us, a lot can happen in three weeks for the front-runner. Directed by Jason Reitman (most known for the critically and commercially acclaimed Juno, also having released the underrated gem Tully earlier this year) adapting Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, the tone is set from the beginning with an elaborate tracking shot (and distinctly grainy 80s visual aesthetics that assist in transporting the audience back in time) that introduces us and follows around different characters in tandem with the events they are discussing, with all of this occurring outside of a democratic gathering.
This frenetic pacing certainly causes The Front Runner to feel slightly unfocused, but such a creative decision also only feels organic for a whirlwind political campaign flying high and diving low. It also helps that many of the coming and going supporting characters are played by noteworthy actors ranging from J.K. Simmons to Alfred Molina and more, with even a well-known name like Mike Judge popping in occasionally. Additionally, Jason Reitman was also on hand for a Q&A following the film, stating that the push and pull from various characters (obviously, always maintaining Gary Hart front and center) was done so because people are most likely to come away having drawn to certain subplots more than others.
There is truth to that, as I found myself more engaged by the narrative arc of Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) more than anyone, which is no tall order considering a performer with such perfect sardonic timing as J.K. Simmons is bound to always run away with any project he is a part of. Jason Reitman could have gone the easy route and gave the film a character to universally hate, but even Donna Rice is humanized; she is not treated like a homewrecker or a slut or anything degrading that, especially for male writers, would have been much easier to present as such in this pickle that cost Americans quite possibly one of the best presidents it could have ever had. Rightfully so, every mainstream news article was reporting on Gary Hart’s affair, but how an event of this magnitude affects an average citizen is equally fascinating and sad to watch; there’s a moment in this movie that is absolutely heartbreaking for Donna Rice. It’s also a testament to Jason Reitman’s skills as a writer and director that he can create these emotional moments while intentionally sparingly using each character.
Also, as a journalist, it’s also easy to get attached to the many conversations that take place discussing journalistic integrity. Obviously, the affair Gary Hart mixed himself into was morally wrong, but he also did it during a transitional time period where the personal lives of politicians started to become just as relevant as Hollywood gossip. In fairness, it’s difficult to blame the public considering they are voting for people to represent their country; what a politician does matters more than who’s dating who among actors and other such garbage. Multiple publications are present throughout the film, making for varying perspectives, and while the characters themselves here are far less interesting, the overall narrative arc of what should have been done here is compelling.
It’s clear that Gary Hart was a private person and didn’t want to let his political and private life intersect, which in some ways also hurts the film. The Front Runner doesn’t examine Gary Hart as well as a politician (all of the talking points are streamlined, solely making it a point to talk about how incredible his ideas were without actually saying anything interesting) or a person; there are some noteworthy performances from his wife and daughter (played by Vera Farmiga and Kaitlyn Dever respectively), but again, the family dynamic is only explored at surface level. Nevertheless, Hugh Jackman is intense as Gary Hart, demonstrating the incapability of understanding why his indecency is important to the public, just as much as he is charismatic making public appearances.
Regardless, there’s still quite a major problem when the characters around the central focus end up resonating more both emotionally and as likable figures. The Front Runner takes the approach of vilifying no one, which works to a point; there are times the film feels as if it should take a stance and say something substantial. It feels as if Jason Reitman is just giving viewers the set-up to have their political argument on the ride home, without actually earning such a heated reaction. There’s a halfway decent character study of Gary Hart here, wrapped around amazing scenes of Donna Rice that beg for a full adaptation. Now that’s a story I would like to see, start to finish.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com