the front runner review

Jason Reitman‘s The Front Runner turns a lens towards the three-week presidential campaign of Gary Hart and finds that it signaled the beginning of a whole new era of tabloid-based political coverage.

“It’s none of their business,” is a line that gets repeated a lot in The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s new political drama based on the true story of Gary Hart’s failed bid for the presidency in 1988. The line is said by Hart himself, as played by Hugh Jackman. Again and again, Hart seems utterly perplexed as to why the American people would want to know literally anything personal about a man running for the highest office in the land.

It’s an enigmatic position from an enigmatic man. Despite being the focus of this feature film, Gary Hart remains a mystery. By the time The Front Runner comes to a close, we’re no closer to understanding who he was than when the movie started. And that’s probably exactly how Gary Hart would want it.

In 1987, Hart was the front runner (hey, that’s the title!) for the Democratic presidential nomination. His polling numbers were through the roof, and he launched his campaign with many assuming he was going to be the next President of the United States.

Three weeks later, it was all over.

Hart’s infidelities, which had been rumored about for years, finally caught up to him when The Miami Herald got an anonymous tip about one of Hart’s affairs – a tip that lead Herald reports to stake-out Hart’s townhouse and dig up some dirt. The infidelities of politicians are nothing new, and the journalists running through the background of The Front Runner acknowledge this. They also acknowledge that things change. The press, and the American people, were perhaps once willing to overlook such digressions. Not anymore.

Reitman’s film could be construed as being anti-press at times – the Herald journalists are portrayed as sleazy buffoons, stalking around in the shadows. One of them even seems to be going after Hart out of a grudge against being denied more access to the candidate. But to assume that is what Reitman is going for here is to only scratch the surface. Were some of the journalists’ methods in digging up Hart’s indiscretions unethical? Maybe. But that doesn’t excuse what Hart did. Or why he did it. The candidate all but tempts fate when he angrily tells a reporter to “follow him around” to prove that he’s not having affairs.

the front runner tiff

It’s very hard to get a read on Hart. At times, he seems almost delusional. When the story breaks, and everything comes crashing down, he keeps trying to go about business as usual, sure that this will all blow over. What’s going on in his head? What makes him tick? I don’t think The Front Runner has an answer, but Jackman does his absolute best to make the character electric. He’s charming and likable when he wants to be, but the minute even the most minor personal question comes up, he snaps – turns mean, hostile even. Jackman nails these polarizing moods.

Everyone around Jackman is pretty damn great as well. Vera Farmiga, always a welcomed presence, makes the most of her part as Hart’s wife. Her reactions to her husband’s infidelities are far more complex than you might expect, and Farmiga knows just how to sell that. Other standouts: J.K. Simmons as Hart’s weary campaign manager, Molly Ephraim as a conflicted staffer, and Mamoudou Athie as a Washington Post reporter just as perplexed at all this as Hart. Athie is particularly good, making a somewhat small part a scene stealer with minimal dialogue – he lets his eyes do most of the talking. Simmons is playing the type of part he can play in his sleep at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. And Ephraim brings a certain dignity to the proceedings, struggling with the fallout and the way the Hart campaign is handling (or rather, not handling) it all. 

The script, by Reitman, Matt Bai and Jay Carson is snappy and funny, full of acerbic wit and punchlines that land. Reitman’s direction finds the filmmaker going off in another direction from his previous work. The TIFF page for The Front Runner says Reitman is “channelling Robert Altman”, and that’s not inaccurate. Reitman adopts Altman’s fondness for telling a story from several points of view, as well as Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue. There’s even an opening scene done in one take that invokes Altman’s one-take opening of The Player. But The Front Runner is also far too slick to be fully compared to Altman’s work. It’s very much a Hollywood-type movie, even if Reitman made it independently.

The crackerjack script and dynamite performances are almost enough to get The Front Runner across the finish line, but there’s something missing. Like Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, it fizzles out just when it’s just getting started, and the audience is left wondering just what happened. Political journalism would only get more tabloidy following the Hart affair, but so did politics and politicians themselves, and I’m not quite sure if this film is reckoning with that. If The Front Runner is trying to issue a warning of things to come, I have some breaking news: it’s already too late.

/Film rating: 6 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net