Review: The Front Runner7 February 2019
The Front Runner – a new film from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) – examines the increasingly fraught relationship between America’s politicians and its media, using the story of leading presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) and the events that undid his campaign in 1988.
The audience follows Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado, and his campaign team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), over four weeks as they travel around the United States drumming up public support and speaking with reporters. Hart presents himself as an intelligent, witty and honourable man truly committed to the best interests of his country. He is, understandably, very popular. Everything changes when he is accused by The Miami Herald newspaper of having an affair with a young woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), after they stake out his Washington home.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart strongly, and I think just as the film creators intended: ambiguously. There are moments where you understand Hart’s popularity and want to like him: calming down idealistic Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) on a turbulent flight, cleverly engaging in a debate at Georgetown University, supporting his daughter Andrea (Katilyn Denver) in her college applications. At other times he is arrogant, stubborn, entitled, and perhaps even manipulative. He has a reputation as womaniser, having been unfaithful to his devoted wife Oletha ‘Lee’ Hart (excellently played by Vera Famiga) numerous times, and it is posed that he took advantage of Donna’s interest in being part of his campaign solely to engage in a sexual relationship with her. His refusal to acknowledge that the stories released about him and Donna could alter the public’s perception of him is frankly, annoying.
But it is this relationship with the media which takes centre stage. Hart cannot fathom why he isn’t being afforded the same considerations extended to his predecessors. He remains resolute on one point the entire film: his private life does not reflect on his ability to be a good politician, and should therefore remain private. The media have overstepped the mark. Journalists themselves wrestle with this view, particularly A.J., but the film concludes allied with Hart. This becomes clear in a dramatic final speech, where he accuses the media of having gone too far down the road of tabloid-esque journalism, hurting future generations of potentially great politicians.
For me, Hart’s arrogance in this belief and his disregard for the consequences others – his wife and daughter, Donna Rice, his entire campaign team – face as a result of his actions, make him ultimately a selfish and unlikeable character. Even though the affair, or his inability to deal with it, costs Gary Hart the presidency, we know he’ll be able to walk away from it more easily than Donna.
It’s actually the film’s representation of Donna which I found the most compelling, especially in her interactions with Hart’s campaign scheduler, Irene Kelly (played so well by Molly Ephraim). Both times we see Hart with Donna, she is nothing but a bundle of blonde hair on top of a body we assume belongs to an attractive woman. Her story is silenced. But with Irene we see her face: her eyes are wide, vulnerable, and afraid. We see how alone she is. Irene doesn’t look at her like Bill Dixon does – a problem that needs to be contained – but as a person. A woman isolated, like herself, in a man’s world.
Although I overall found the film engaging, I would only really recommend it if you have an interest in politics or journalism and the way they interact with each other. Or if you’re a really big Hugh Jackman fan. The film promises a hard-hitting, ground-breaking story, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I didn’t walk away feeling the heavy impact I was hoping for after watching the trailer. That said, Gary Hart’s fall from grace does represent a fundamental shift in what constituted ‘newsworthy’ political reporting, and I definitely agree that this change had a significant impact on history.
The supporting cast is powerful. From the flurried action of a crowded, smoke-filled newsroom, the intensity of a presidential campaign trail, packs of reporters chasing a scandal like wolves looking to satisfy their hunger, the scenes are all well done and dripping with charming 80s nostalgia.
But as to whether the media ‘robbed’ the U.S. of a great leader who would have changed the world – as the book on which The Front Runner is based, All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai – suggests, I’m not certain.
The Front Runner is in cinemas now.