Film Review: The Front Runner

Hugh Jackman stars as a Presidential candidate racing toward disaster.
Major Releases

If you want to know why current politics are the way they are—with candidates’ characters discussed more than their policies, and political reporters competing with gossip columnists—director Jason Reitman asks you look back to 1988.

That’s when Sen. Gary Hart was already The Front Runner in the soon-to-start Presidential campaign—and saw his easy path to the Democratic nomination, and probable Election Day win, derailed by endless gossip about extramarital escapades.

Was that a good thing? Should a politician’s private life stay private? Or is the fact that a person may have lied in one thing proof that they’ll lie in another? Those are topics worth debating. You probably already have your opinions. Reitman has his.

But The Front Runner works hard to accommodate all points of view.

It doesn’t “prove” that Hart and Donna Rice slept together (although it’s clear Hart’s wife doesn’t doubt it). And while it certainly doesn’t applaud the journalists who chased after him, it wonders just what that old gentlemen’s agreement—whatever happens on the campaign trail, stays on the campaign trail—said about the way women were disrespected and dismissed.

Whatever your views on all this, expect to see The Front Runner thoroughly respect and challenge them.

Also expect to see a compelling, carefully detailed, thoughtfully constructed political drama that’s both a portrait of one individual, whose intellect and idealism sometimes seem thwarted by his own stubbornness and ego, and of a system that appears almost designed to bring out the worst in everyone. (Not surprisingly, Reitman has said his movie model for this was The Candidate.)

His film focuses on three weeks in the Hart campaign with—an outside-the-box choice—Hugh Jackman as the candidate. It’s smart casting, actually, and sets up an interesting dynamic. Jackman’s been best known—whether onstage or in his various Wolverine appearances—as a man who’s bursting with honest emotion. Here he’s playing, except for a few telling scenes, someone who refuses to give anything away. It creates an intriguing, almost palpable tension.

He’s well-partnered by a fiery J.K. Simmons as his loyal but frustrated campaign manager and a heartbreaking Vera Farmiga as his long-suffering wife. Sara Paxton gives Donna Rice more human consideration than anyone did back then, while Molly Ephraim plays a campaign staffer with some conflicted feelings about the very male lens all this is seen through.

If the casting goes awry at all, it’s when Reitman brings in Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee. Not that Molina isn’t a good actor, but casting him as the lean and elegant Bradlee is a bit like bringing in Oliver Platt to play William F. Buckley.

And, even as audiences are taking a few minutes to figure out that that is, indeed, who Molina is supposed to be, other complications crowd the scene. Along with The Candidate, Reitman seems to have been inspired by Robert Altman, and many scenes are overstuffed with unidentified characters, all talking over one another and referring to people we still haven’t met. For the first ten minutes, it’s hard to find your feet.

But then the story begins to unfold and deepen.

Hart’s early disgust with even the regular requirements of a political campaign—attending a big barbecue, posing for a People cover—begins to betray a certain dangerous sense of self-importance. The rush to get the story (on the journalists’ end) and to suppress it (on the campaign’s) leaves broken friendships and ruined reputations in its wake.

The film’s very narrow focus leaves some things off the screen. There’s no mention of the famous National Enquirer photo—which came out later—of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap while the yacht Monkey Business bobbed in the background. Or of Hart’s attempt, after withdrawing, to re-enter the campaign months later (before being roundly trounced).

But there’s a lot here as it is.

Certainly Hart’s ideas—on the environment, on the economy, on education—are powerful (and would be forward-thinking, even today). But if he was as arrogant, or simply as careless, as the newspaper stories suggested, wouldn’t that have made it difficult to turn those policies into law? And if the journalists hadn’t investigated his personal life, or had kept news back from their readers, would that have been more, or less, ethical than digging deep?

The Front Runner,rightfully, doesn’t provide any answers to those questions. But it does ask them—and demands we do, too.