If the The Front Runner were going to take me out to dinner, it couldn’t ask for a cheaper date. I am primed to love this movie. It’s a movie from one of my favorite directors, Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), featuring Hugh Jackman and an unbelievable cast of character actors, plus it’s about the two topics most dear to me, politics and journalism. This is a movie made for middle-aged white dudes who majored in political science and journalism and who now write about movies for a site that specializes in movies and politics. I am the cheapest date Front Runner could find; one watered-down beer and I am in the tank for this movie.
And yet, I found The Front Runner to be woefully disappointing, and if this movie can’t please me, God help the casual moviegoer.
The problem with The Front Runner is not the performances, or even the message it’s trying to impart. It’s that there’s just not much to the Gary Hart story. There’s no real narrative thrust. A Senator fucked around on his wife, the press caught him, and the odds-on-favorite to win the Presidency in 1988 had to drop out of the race because he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. End of story.
In some ways, The Front Runner feels like a quaint movie about the olden days when an extramarital affair could sink a Presidential candidacy, and when a politician’s personal life was off-limits to the press. In so many ways, The Front Runner is a movie completely removed from our current political climate, although it wants to believe that the Gary Hart affair is what put us on our current path. It’s not. Blurring the line between a candidate’s political life and personal life was all but inevitable. In fact, the only difference between the 1988 and 1992 Presidential election is that 1992 election illustrated that the American people would overlook an extramarital affair (or three? Or four?), and my guess is that if Gary Hart were a better politician with a better political team — or had less of a conscience — he could have survived the affair and won the ‘88 election.
The movie itself is deadly dull, especially by today’s standards. I almost hate to say it, but it’s a dialogue-heavy movie that could’ve used the heavy hand and speechifying of someone like Aaron Sorkin. It’s written by Matt Bai and Jay Carson — a political journalist and a political advisor — and it lacks the theatrics necessary for the big screen. It often feels more like a think piece than a movie.
The Front Runner takes place over a three-week period in which Colorado Senator Gary Hart — who came in second to Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic primary — enters the race as the front runner and drops out after the press outs him for having an affair with Donna Rice. It entails watching Hart (Jackman) dodge questions from a few reporters about his personal life up and until a couple of reporters from the Miami Herald (Bill Burr and Steve Zissis) stake out his townhouse and spot Donna Rice coming out. The Miami Herald is the first to imply that Hart might be sleeping around on his wife, and that opens the floodgates. Within days, the rest of the mainstream press swallows their “integrity” and jumps on the bandwagon. Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga) — who purportedly made “allowances” for Hart’s dick — feels humiliated by the affair (not the affair itself, but that it’s in the press) and Hart’s team tries to work Donna Rice.
I will give Reitman a lot of credit for this: He takes pains to depict Donna Rice as a real person instead of a bimbo side piece, and he uses the fictional campaign aide Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) to both show Rice’s side of the story and illustrate how the affair did more than destroy Hart’s candidacy — it destroyed Rice’s life for several years. By the end of the film, most of our sympathies lie not with Hart or the press, but with Rice.
Still, while The Front Runner makes for a lousy drama, in the conflict between the press and Gary Hart, it at least asks some tough questions. On the whole, it comes down on the side of the press (rightfully). A politician’s character is important, and for way too long, male politicians both took advantage of their power and hid behind the public/personal life wall to take advantage of women. Character does matter — and there’s no greater example of that than Donald Trump — and the public has the right to know what kind of a person a candidate is before we vote for him or her (and the public also has every right to disregard questions about a candidate’s character, as those who voted for Trump clearly did).
Some might argue that Gary Hart led us down the slippery slope to where we are today, and at least in this regard, that’s a good thing. A politician — especially a male politician — who argues that his personal life should be off-limits usually has something to hide, and more often than not, what he’s hiding is the way he abuses his power to the detriment of someone else. All due respect to Hart’s intelligence and idealism, but fuck that guy. He got what he deserved.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures