The Frtont Runner
Like so many Jason Reitman productions, The Front Runner isn’t necessarily a terrible movie so much as a frustrating one. Compelling points could be made from mining the story of disgraced U.S. Senator Gary Hart and the precedent set by the collapse of his political career. Unfortunately, Reitman’s movie never quite finds a point of view.
Maybe it’s because the timing of the release couldn’t be worse. Maybe it’s because the lessons learned are so dated. Or maybe this movie simply didn’t need to exist in the first place. You know what? It’s probably the latter.
Hugh Jackman stars as Gary Hart. History lesson time! Hart was a passionate and progressive Senator who seemed like a shoe-in to be the Democratic Presidential candidate in 1988. He had everything going for him, but one big flaw. He loved having affairs and sincerely didn’t believe those elements of his private life should be brought into his political sphere. Well, guess what happened? After wooing the press with all of his big ideas, The Miami Herald received an anonymous phone call about a possible affair and decided to investigate. Two reporters (Steve Zissis and, amusingly, Bill Burr) staked out his town house and caught him with a lady. They ran the story immediately despite being cornered and challenged by Hart. That led to all sorts of outrage and controversy for both the reporters and the politician. Hart resigned and the nature of how newspapers covered politicians was never the same again.
It’s a compelling story, but Reitman never quite seems confident in how to tell it. At times, The Front Runner feels like a goofball comedy (Filling the Herald‘s editorial staff with the likes of Burr, Kevin Pollak, and Mike Judge certainly helps the laugh count.) At other times, it’s supposed to feel like a tragedy about the death of journalistic ethics. Neither the tone nor the theme comes off as coherent by the end of the movie. It’s likely designed to make viewers uncomfortable, but it just doesn’t play as intended. Likewise, the way the women of the story are treated primarily as afterthoughts and pawns leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It feels odd for this specific story to be told at this specific time (with MeToo and so forth). Is Hart really someone who should be lionized? Should the nature of the political press really be questioned in a time when a sitting President keeps having childish “Fake News” temper tantrums anytime he runs out of Diet Coke and/or ice cream?
The Front Runner ultimately comes off as a tone-deaf political statement and a toothless political satire. It’s a confused effort, possibly because the script was developed long before the cultural landscape shifted on so many of the issues it explores. That’s almost a shame because, on a superficial level, the film is fairly well made. The cast is impressive from top to bottom and they all commit to the best of their abilities. Reitman shoots it stylishly, his roving cameras eavesdropping on conversations in a style that deliberately resembles Robert Altman (whose cult HBO series Tanner ’88 was being shot simultaneously with these events, possibly explaining the homage).
There’s good stuff here if you don’t dig too deep. Sadly, the flick came out in the worst possible time and will likely be dismissed and disappear faster than the failed Presidential campaign it chronicles.