The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s second major release of the year, finds Hugh Jackman playing one-time presidential favorite Gary Hart during the rise and implosion of his campaign. It’s one of those near-past biopics that has both the benefit and the curse of depicting someone both literally alive and well and alive and well in the minds of people of a certain age. As someone born a handful of months after the events depicted in this film, I can’t see anything to suggest that Hugh Jackman didn’t do a magnificent job of slipping into Hart’s shoes. As someone who spends a lot of time skulking around theaters and is familiar with Reitman’s canon of work, I can see that his message feels muddled by a fondness for Hart, and what he stood for.
From a distance, it’s obvious that Hart’s undoing was his hubris. And his entitled view that the press owed him the favor of looking the other way when he stepped out on his wife. Those moments when the men in the newsroom at The Washington Post reminisce about covering up for Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are staggering. Then Ari Graynor’s Ann Devroy swoops in with a masterful schpiel on precisely why it does matter and we’re rocked back to 2018 and an environment that’s still uncertain if women’s realities and perspectives matter. And the whole thing seems less a discussion of the past than an interesting lens through which to view the present.
In chronicling the instance when campaign coverage “went tabloid” to borrow a phrase from the film’s marketing, Reitman seems to be asking if we can believe that not-so-long-ago it was unheard of to ask if a candidate was a good and moral person beyond the merits of his qualifications. But his sympathy toward Hart simultaneously seems to ask us to ponder if what happened to the upstart from Colorado was fair. As the picture goes on, he seems to waffle between these two ideas, simply because of his belief that Hart was one of the good guys, and that gives the late stages of the picture kind of an icky aftertaste, even in spite of Vera Farmiga’s excellent work as Hart’s wife, Lee. Molly Ephraim also delivers some exceptional moments in the back half of the film. Indeed, Graynor, Farmiga and Ephraim carry the emotional weight and implication of the narrative beautifully, even if the picture can’t quite conceal a wish that this hadn’t happened to Hart.
Where the late game of the picture is all about the unraveling, the first half is all about the mythology that develops around a campaign such as Hart’s. There is a rat-a-tat rhythm as we bounce from newsroom to campaign warplanning huddle and back and forth again. We ping-pong around, catching glimpses of Hart, hearing snippets of him, but mostly coming to know him from the buzz around him. In this, The Front Runner is brilliant. It introduces us to Gary Hart, the myth, before it exposes us to the flaws of Gart Hart the man. We see what the public sees. We see what behind-the-scenes knows. Then we watch them collapse onto each other. It’s frantic and fascinating, and frustrating at times, but The Front Runner never fails to command attention — not unlike the political science that makes up its beating heart.
The Front Runner
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Matt Bai, Jay Carson, Jason Reitman (written by); Matt Bai (based on the book by)
Runtime: 1h 53mins
Release date: November 16, 2018 (limited)
Main image credit: Sony Pictures / Frank Masi SMPSP ©2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.