The Front Runner (2018)
The Week America Went Tabloid
On the surface, The Front Runner is about the undoing of Democratic Presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), whose sure-to-win 1988 run at the Oval Office collapsed in a heap following a sex scandal. Thematically, though, director Jason Reitman’s film is about … well, it’s hard to say.
Not because it’s complex, mind you, but because it’s frustratingly opaque. The film — adapted by Reitman, Matt Bai, and Jay Carson from Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid — posits the media frenzy around Hart’s alleged affair with then-model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) as a watershed cultural moment, the point where the respectable mainstream media adopted the attention-grabbing headlines and foot-in-the-door tactics of the gutter press.
And yes, it’s fascinating to look through the window The Front Runner presents and see a time when the personal and the political weren’t so closely intertwined. Compare the relationship between the press and the media as described by veteran scribe Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) when he talks about not reporting on Lyndon B. Johnson’s infidelities following John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the current state of affairs — is it better or worse?
The Front Runner thinks it’s worse and makes its case by putting a handsome, charismatic, progressive Democrat in the hot seat, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic when it’s Our Hugh running the gauntlet of cameras and microphones, and his wife and daughter (Vera Farmiga and Kaitlyn Dever) have to circle the wagons against the gathering camera crews outside the family home. It’s interesting to imagine how this might play if the political slant was reversed (like it is, say, right now in the real world). Without a charismatic, likable victim/ protagonist, the film’s thesis that we were better off when the press and the pollies had a gentlemen’s agreement crumbles like a sandcastle at high tide.
It also doesn’t help that Reitman and co. create several fictional figures to really ask the hard questions, most notably Mamoudou Athie’s AJ Parker, a reporter for The Washington Post who acts as the film’s conscience, grilling Hart despite liking the man on a personal level. For a movie based on fact and populated with real figures from the time, it’s disappointing that it feels the need to dramatize its thesis with entirely fictional figures, such as Kevin Pollak’s fictitious Miami Herald Publisher, who subs in for a figure whose words and actions must surely be on the record, and Molly Ephraim’s campaign worker, who exists largely to give Rice someone to state her case to. Still, crafting historical fiction from the lives of people still alive enough to both object and potentially litigate is a dicey prospect, as the folks behind both this and Vice must surely know (and it’s to the detriment of both films).
Perhaps that’s why the rugged and charming Hart remains a mystery to us — putting motivations in his mind is arguably even more fraught a prospect as putting words in his mouth, and so the main character’s inner life remains largely inexplicable to us, despite a captivating performance by the ever-watchable Jackman. Hart drops the gate in a pretty hardcore manner once the press corps start asking awkward questions, arguing that his private life should be inviolable and completely separate from his public work and his policies, and it’s as though the film takes the same attitude in regards to what its audience should be privy to.
The picture also never comes down on whether Hart actually conducted an extra-marital affair — and, to be fair, the jury is still out, and the facts are not in on that count. Still, it makes for a frustrating viewing experience. Reitman is clearly trying to keep the focus on the events and questions swirling around the accusations against Hart, but by refusing to take a stand on Hart’s motives, his guilt or innocence, or even if those terms are applicable to the situation, he creates a rather hollow filmgoing experience — we’re never in the moment, we’re never in Hart’s head, we’re only observing. That approach might work for, say, Stanley Kubrick, but it falters here.
Still, The Front Runner is a handsome and technically accomplished piece. It may be set in the ’80s, but the film is unarguably drawing its stylistic cues from the urgent adult dramas of the ’70s — think All the President’s Men (1976), Network (1976), and the like. Reitman’s camera roves through meticulously constructed spaces that perfectly evoke the textures and tones of its period setting, and the layered sound design does a lot to put the viewer in the film (but crucially and unfortunately, separate from the principal players). The script is tight, and the action moves quickly — smartly, the film restricts itself almost entirely to the three weeks between Hart announcing his candidacy and his red-faced withdrawal shortly thereafter.
The cast is fantastic. The subject matter is fascinating. But the whole thing suffers from a weird reticence. That could, if you squint, be mistaken for restraint, but really it feels like obsequiousness — as though the filmmakers hold their central figure in such esteem that looking too closely at his feet of clay is beyond consideration. Instead, The Front Runner functions as an odd and ill-thought critique of the press, effectively condemning the media for examining and calling into question a public figure’s personal ethics, as though the personal and the political never intersect or influence one another.
We absolutely know that not to be true, just as we know that, at this exact moment in time, in the opening days of 2019, the free press is currently under unprecedented attack from entrenched power structures, and terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘msm’ have entered the popular lexicon. So, if nothing else, this is an incredibly poorly timed picture. Really, is a film that excoriates the media for holding the powerful to account for their ethical failings really what we need right now? With a film like this it’s not just the political context of the time that counts, but also the milieu into which it’s being released, and in that regard, The Front Runner seems hopelessly tone deaf.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson