Male politicians have been succumbing to their libidos for decades now, so the portrait of a political sex scandal is hardly groundbreaking fodder for a piece of cinema. But the intriguing story of 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Gary Hart and the affair that destroyed his campaign stands apart by way of being one of the earliest examples of the press finally breaking the unspoken rule of turning a blind eye to such indiscretions under the guise of such stories being in the “public’s interest.” It’s just a shame the resulting film is such a bland and forgettable mess.
Without any semblance of intention or purpose, co-writer/director Jason Reitman has crafted The Front Runner (such an unfortunate title for awards season time) in such a generic way that makes it genuinely unclear what he’s attempting to offer besides a pointless history lesson you could uncover yourself from a quick scan of Hart’s Wikipedia page. Unless this true-life scandal is entirely unknown to you, there’s really nothing new on offer here.
Is Reitman highlighting the nefarious actions of yet another self-absorbed politician who thought he could do as he pleased? Or is he admonishing the headline-hungry press for broadcasting those actions for the world to see and destroying the chances of someone who could have made a great President? It’s highly likely you’ll walk away unsure which angle he was going for because neither are handled particularly effective. Likewise with the staggering ensemble cast who are all entirely wasted in a disappointing film that falls completely flat.
After losing his 1984 presidential campaign to former Vice President Walter Mondale (who would go on to suffer the worst electoral college defeat for any Democratic Party candidate in history), Gary Hart (a typically great Hugh Jackman), a Democratic Senator of Colorado, returns in 1987 to launch his campaign for the 1988 election. With his handsome looks, sharp intelligence, and intoxicating charisma, Hart immediately lept to the status of Democratic front-runner. And with George H.W. Bush looking likely as the next Republican nominee, Hart’s road to the White House seems all but assured.
Hart’s ability to charm the press only boosted his campaign further, particularly after years of journalists overlooking his rumoured marital infidelities. With his trusted campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), a talented team of dedicated staffers, and a devoted wife (a shamefully underused Vera Farmiga), Hart’s campaign is sailing along perfectly. As rumours begin to swirl of his womanising, Hart, in a ridiculous moment of hubris, Hart challenges the press to follow him when he’s not campaigning to prove his innocence. This opens the floodgates for a series of unscrupulous reporters hoping to crack the front-runner’s foolish facade.
After learning of a buried story about Hart’s activities with a much younger woman, Donna Rice (an impressive Sara Paxton) onboard a boat ironically named “Monkey Business,” Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr), both investigative journalists for the Miami Herald, stake out his Washington D.C. home where they witness Hart enter but never leave. A heated confrontation between the reporters and Hart leads to a series of salacious stories regarding the possible affair and the legitimacy of Hart as the next President of the free world, blurring the lines between tabloid trash and legitimate news and causing Hart’s campaign to collapse before his very eyes.
The major theme Reitman appears to be tackling in The Front Runner is the very newsworthiness of this scandalous story, and whether the reporters who uncovered Hart’s indiscretions were heroic champions working for the American people or fame-chasing filth who were only concerned with uncovering a scandal to sell some papers. It would have been great if Reitman knew his own view on this and could have infused the narrative with a shred of intention. He often bizarrely paints Hart as the innocent victim in this saga, despite the fact the man clearly couldn’t keep his dick in his pants and this scandal was entirely of his own making.
It’s hard to feel sympathy for a man so pathetically drunk on his own power that he would actually challenge reporters to follow him (yes, that actually happens) and then lose his cool when they actually follow his orders and uncover his previously well-kept secrets. Even in the hands of someone as endearing as Jackman, Hart does not play well as the empathetic prey of a press core rightly out for his blood. Jackman portrays the politician as someone so out-of-touch with reality, he genuinely seemed to believe he was above judgement for his private life behaviour, which, quite frankly, is the most accurate aspect of this film.
But, at a certain point, the story flips on its head and presents Rice as the true victim here, particularly after she’s chewed up and spat out by Hart’s campaign and left to fend an ensuing media swarm entirely on her own. Paxton is rather captivating as the naive and dewy-eyed youngster who fell for Hart’s guile and paid the ultimate price. Instantly slut-shamed and branded with a scarlet letter, Rice served as one of the first examples the tabloid media culture’s treatment of women who are almost always automatically humiliated and disgraced without a second thought.
The fatal flaw of The Front Runner is how little it delves into its main character, which is truly baffling from a film that presents itself as a biopic. There’s very little introspection of Hart as more than just a flashy politician, with little examination of his motivations. You won’t walk away from this film really knowing what made Hart tick, leaving one to wonder why we even have this film in the first place. Was he a great President-in-the-making who’s chance at the Oval Office was unfairly snatched away from him? Or was he just another con-artist who was determined to manipulate his way to the top in his lust for power and control? Honestly, I’m still unsure.
It sure seems the timeliness of this film is attempting to make a statement on the current state of American politics, where scandals similar to Hart’s only seemed to strengthen Donald Trump’s recent presidential campaign instead of destroying it. At one point, Hart warns of the repercussions of the press looking to tear down “legitimate” candidates for the sake of making headlines, which could cause future deserving candidates to avoid running and America will instead be left with a narcissistic sycophant who can survive such scrutiny. If Reitman is issuing this as a dire and desperate warning, he’s sadly far too late.
At first glance, The Front Runner appears like it could have been a biting and compelling piece of cinema. A fascinating storyline. A sublime ensemble cast. And a timely narrative that feels entirely relevant. But Reitman wastes every opportunity he had here, leaving us with a shallow film that leaves little impression. It foolishly attempts to elicit sympathy for an unsympathetic character, which is particularly baffling at a time when just the thought of most politicians makes people want to gag. It invites us to inspect Hart’s misgivings but fails to properly investigate them, so what are we even here for? This film had plenty to say, but it never bothers to even try.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Front Runner is in cinemas now.