Even though it deals with a presidential race that took place 30 years ago, and a candidate whose campaign lasted only three weeks, new film The Front Runner could not be more pertinent or important in terms of today’s politics. Perhaps that is why Sony Pictures is taking the unprecedented step of beginning its theatrical runs on Election Day. Even the television commercials for it are including information on how you can vote. So what makes this film featuring Hugh Jackman — in a strong and unexpected dramatic turn as Sen. Gary Hart, who was considered a sure thing for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 before being set up by a tabloid determined to out him for having an extramarital affair — so right for these times?
Director Jason Reitman and his co-screenwriters Jay Carson and Bai use the story of the derailing of Hart’s young presidential bid as a parallel to all that politics in the Donald Trump era seems to have become. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), the story The Front Runner wants to tell essentially is the moment the tabloids started to take over politics and the rules of running for office in America. Hart, a senator from Colorado, had been through it before by dipping his toes in the 1984 presidential race and even before that as George McGovern’s manager when he ran in 1972. But those were different times, and now whispers of an affair with a young woman named Donna Rice were not going to go unnoticed, especially when so-called news organizations sense reader interest in the private lives of those who serve us.
Hart, on the other hand, is portrayed as a gifted candidate — a person with strong ideas for how to bring the country forward but also one who believes his private life is of no importance in terms of his career and political ambitions. He’s in a quandary, and after a Miami newspaper essentially ambushes him outside of his apartment where Rice was seen going in, but not coming out, comes the beginning of the end of his run for the presidency as eventually it also gets the attention of legitimate news organizations including the Washington Post. There is a particularly sharp scene in a restaurant where a Post reporter AJ Parker (nicely played by Mamoudou Athie) is cautiously but pointedly turning what Hart thought was to be an interview about issues into one probing his marital fidelity. It’s a brilliantly played chess game by both Jackman and Athie and effectively closes the door on whatever agreements previously existed between political figures and the mainstream press regarding their private lives. It led to the era we live in now, where the gloves come off in spectacular fashion, but also one in which scandal, at least in the case of Trump, doesn’t seem to have any effect at all, at least not yet. For Hart it was a game changer because he simply couldn’t accept the fact that his personal life was something that should be on the table.
All of this is the crux of this film based on Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, but Reitman also is interested in the mechanics of a campaign, what is really behind someone like Gary Hart — and in that respect, this is a political film reminiscent of some of the best examples of the genre like 1972’s The Candidate with Robert Redford. As in that film the camera always is finding interesting things going on that might not be front and center. The Front Runner has an urgency and energy to it, and Reitman’s approach captures that.
Although the acting honors belong largely to Jackman, who is a revelation and perfection as the complex Hart and really getting the nuance in so many scenes, but the supporting cast is equal to him. Vera Farmiga is excellent as Lee Hart, the wife caught up in all the crosshairs of this tabloid nightmare consuming her husband, and J.K. Simmons is his usual solid self as his campaign chief. Katilyn Dever is touching as Hart’s daughter, Andrea, and though her screen time is brief, I was very impressed with the three-dimensionality that Sara Paxton is able to bring to her portrayal of Rice.
American audience might be over politics after Tuesday, but no matter what happens The Front Runner is worth seeing for a number of reasons — not the least is Jackman’s Oscar-worthy turn. Producers are Reitman, Helen Estabrook and Aaron L. Gilbert. After opening Tuesday in select theaters, Sony Pictures will expand the film throughout November.
Do you plan to see The Front Runner? Let us know what you think, and don’t forget to vote.