Directed by: Jason Reitman
Premise: Based on true events. In 1987, United States Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) bids for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. But over the course of three weeks his campaign is derailed by reports of infidelity.
What Works: The Front Runner is a story about the personal and the political and the space where those worlds overlap. The film is subtle and complex with characterizations that are nuanced and a take on these events that is considered. The Front Runner is led by Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart. As depicted in this film, Hart matched the intellectuality of a policy wonk with a proletarian sensibility; he could explain complex issues in a way that was understandable to common people and he got them excited about the political process. But as portrayed here, Hart naively believed he could run for president while keeping the personal and the political separate and he fundamentally disliked having to make himself relatable. Jackman is terrific in the role and he captures the qualities that made Hart such a likable candidate but also the way his moral indignation to questions of infidelity belied a hubris that eventually brought down Hart’s candidacy. Jackman is paired with Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart and she possesses a similar complexity. Lee Hart is depicted as a woman who knew of her husband’s transgressions and had achieved some kind of understanding and yet takes affront when those transgressions are exposed to the world. Also impressive in supporting roles are Sara Paxton as paramour Sara Rice and Mamoudou Athie as a fictionalized Washington Post reporter. Rice is depicted as a woman who was smart and accomplished but whose identity would be forever linked to an affair. The film has a nuanced regard for her and Paxton conveys a lot in her few scenes. Athie is also impressive as a young reporter who is initially impressed by Hart but later becomes instrumental in the reporting that destroys the senator’s bid for the White House. The tension in Athie’s performance and his character’s disappointment viscerally captures political disillusionment.
What Doesn’t: The implicit thesis of The Front Runner is that the Gary Hart affair was a turning point in American politics. As this movie portrays it, private moral foibles had never before been an issue in national politics and prestigious news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times wouldn’t dare sully themselves with stories of adultery. That just isn’t true. Grover Cleveland was widely reported to have fathered a child out of wedlock and the Petticoat Affair ruined the careers of politicians in the Andrew Jackson administration. The idea that the Gary Hart affair was some new low in American politics and in political reporting is naïve.
Bottom Line: The Front Runner is a complex portrait of a political scandal and it has terrific performances. The movie overreaches a bit and makes the Gary Hart scandal more than it was but the film tells this story well with appropriate moral complexity.
Episode: #728 (December 9, 2018)