Director Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner is a difficult one to wrap your head around. Ostensibly, a dark comedy about the blurring of lines between the legitimate press and tabloid practices, as well as a candidate’s public and private lives, the movie struggles with its POV. Do Reitman and his fellow writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson want to ridicule reporters for staking out the home of Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1988 to catch him committing adultery? Are they indicting the Colorado senator for being so sinful or more for being naïve that he thought he could get away trysting with Donna Rice? Might they even be suggesting the politician paid too steep a price for his indiscretions, considering our modern times and a number of recent POTUS’s who were elected with worse records of infidelity? So much of the story is well-done, but too much of who it really wants to savage is unclear and even confounding.
The problems start with the presentation of Hart. We see him losing the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984 at the start of the film, but then it leaps forward to four years later and Hart is the de facto front runner in the next race. Why? What makes him so special? The story gives lip service to Hart’s modern ideas and his youthful handsomeness, but the script never gives us enough insight into just why this politician resonated with so many. Instead, the story spends a lot of time setting up all those working for him and the craziness of running his campaign. Where are the scenes that would enable the audience to be drawn to Hart as well? Outside of his tender approach to his grown daughter’s suggested lesbianism, we don’t get many positive vibes from him. Instead, the film paints him as stubborn, prickly, and even petulant.
It doesn’t help that Hugh Jackman is playing Hart closer to his Wolverine persona than to the Boy from Oz. Hart was not macho or muscular in the least. He came off as a wonkish college professor with shaggy hair and a Kennedy-esque breeziness. Little is made of how closely Hart echoed Kennedy in his mannerisms, like walking around with one hand in his coat pocket. Was it legitimate or an affectation? The film could have mined such themes that would have set up Hart as someone who either went too far in emulating his hero, adultery included. But was most of his schtick fakery to give himself a perceived JFK flair? The film never attempts to answer such intriguing questions. (It also saddles Jackman with an obvious wig that does him no favors.)
And could Hart have truly been that naïve about thinking his peccadilloes wouldn’t be fodder for the press? When he’s confronted by reporters Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr) of the Miami Herald about model Rice (Sara Paxton) in his D.C. residence, Hart stares them down with enough menace to suggest it’s an outtake from “Logan.” Wouldn’t Hart have been more panicked? Wouldn’t the reporters have been a little less terrified of him considering they had the goods?
And what are we to make of Hart’s relationship with his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga)? She’s presented as world-weary and long-suffering, keenly aware of her husband’s consistent straying, but what keeps her there? The power? Perhaps. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a marriage filled with rapport as they way Hart treats her in the film is almost as terse as everyone else. Farmiga is moving in scenes where she confronts him with her cool tartness. Her attitude could be seen as a parallel to the modern “Times Up” movement, but then in the final title card, we find out she’s stayed with him all these years. Was it all just talk? Are they both too invested or corrupted to change? It’s confusing and confounding because she’s not presented as a woman who would suffer such foolishness any longer.
The film does better with some of the supporting characters, particularly those close to Hart’s campaign. J.K. Simmons finds all kinds of shadings in his role as campaign manager Bill Dixon. He’s gruff, warm, blunt, and sentimental – often all in the same scene. Molly Ephraim shines as campaign worker Irene Kelly in every scene she has. She’s given the unfortunate task of handling Rice after the affair goes public, and the mix of sympathy and disgust across Molly’s face is palpable. The script gives her a lot to play and Ephraim runs with it. If only the Hart character was given as much, ahem, heart.
Other casting is off and hinders things too. The always excellent Alfred Molina plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, but he’s too genteel and teddy bearish for the brusque and craggy newspaperman. (Tom Hanks in last year’s The Post couldn’t hold a candle to Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning portrayal in 1976’s “All the President’s Men” either.) The reporters are all portrayed as insecure or naïve, as are most of the young men working for the campaign. Some of it is funny, but most of it seems silly. Was Joe Trippi (Oliver Cooper), the man who spearheaded Howard Dean’s presidential bid in ’88, really such a sweaty nebbish back then? Perhaps, but here he seems more like a caricature than a character.
Shockingly, the film misses the most obvious of links it could have made showcasing tabloid journalism becoming equal to legitimate newsgathering in its failure to present the infamous cover of the National Enquirer showing Rice sitting on Hart’s lap in Miami. She was clad in just a tight T, short shorts, and a shit-eating grin. He looked a bit inebriated as he was caught laughing in the pose in front of the Monkey Business yacht with her. It was devastating ‘art’ as they say in journalism and it put a definitive picture to the story. Hart could poo-poo the rumors, but such a candid and naughty pic could not be explained away. Yet, for whatever reason, Reitman and his fellow writers fail to make this a plot point.
Reitman is one of cinema’s cleverest filmmakers, but here his blending of humor and sentimentality approaches the maudlin. It would have been better either being a full-out lampooning or a mournful elegy. Instead, it wants us to laugh at the neurotic reporters and staffers, but it also strains to work up pity for Rice, the Harts, and the candidate’s team when the bully crashes from front runner to the fallen in three short weeks. The only sympathy here should be for the American public. We deserved better politicos then, and we surely deserve better ones now, particularly in the White House.
View the trailer of The Front Runner below: