The spring 1987 reversal of fortune for Colorado Senator Gary Hart was swift, moving from Ronald Reagan’s White House heir apparent to also-ran in a few weeks’ time. Fueled by allegations of his extramarital affair with campaign fundraiser Donna Rice, the Democratic presidential candidate’s downfall came in an era when the bombastic bombardment of political news often stopped at the Beltway’s outermost edges. But drums beat loudly and insistently nationwide here, at a tempo Hart dictated after daring reporters to trail him and suggesting they’d find his life “very boring” and free of evidence to support charges of womanizing.
In The Front Runner, which depicts these events, director / co-writer Jason Reitman (Tully, Juno) has collaborated with political columnist Matt Bai and former Clinton advisor Jay Carson on the script. He’s cast Hugh Jackman, again pursuing that elusive Oscar, as Hart and surrounded him with a surfeit of Reitman Repertory Players (Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons) and secret-weapon supporting players from the TV series Reitman watches or produces. (For the cast of Reitman’s show Casual, this film’s subtitle could be How I Spent My Hiatus.)
As its thesis, The Front Runner surmises Hart’s eventual withdrawal from the race was a tipping point away from civility in press coverage of American politics. Yes, here’s a movie plopped into theaters during our current shitstorm that suggests the abusive powers of the press not only derailed a Democratic dynasty some 30 years ago but also discouraged good people from running for office and brought us to where we are now. As culpable as mainstream media outlets may have been in manufacturing drama from our immediate quagmire, this is an utterly wrongheaded bone to pick. Indeed, The Front Runner devolves into a turgid cavalcade of grandstanding complaints that can’t even muster slick entertainment value. It’s so desperate for hindsight laughs that it cracks wise in wondering why anyone would vote for George H.W. Bush in 1988 and uses “I like his positions” (Rice’s response to why she entered Hart’s orbit) as a hardy-har-har for Republicans in the audience who love a good public shaming so long as it’s not their own. Plus, it reduces many of its players to point-and-shout bits that barely register.
Although Tully remains among 2018’s best films, Reitman and his usual collaborators deliver astonishingly anonymous work here. Rob Simonsen’s musical score is derivative on every front. Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is encased in amber, for all the locations seem lit like a Werther’s commercial. Reitman himself essentially grasps at or gaffles from popular political satirists working this vein before him, chiefly a deafening diegetic din of bread-and-circus shouts and overlapping conversations that recall Robert Altman’s Nashville or Tanner 88 or a seriocomic approach akin to any of Jay Roach’s HBO original films. (Never mind that it also opens with Brubeck du jour “Unsquare Dance” like Baby Driver or the Green Book trailer.)
Unlike Altman or Roach, The Front Runner never finds its own center of gravity, feebly pecking at points of interest on the periphery and putting Jackman under a hilariously awful wig in what is otherwise an OK notch in Jackman’s non-blockbuster belt. Early on, Jackman shares a great scene on a plane alongside Mamoudou Athie, playing a composite-character Washington Post reporter who later traps Hart in his most damning contradiction. The turbulence is bad, and the reporter is nervous. “Close your eyes and think of it as a truck on a country road,” Hart says in a soothing voice. “The truck hits bumps but you keep going. The roads just aren’t paved.” Jackman’s downcast face and darting eyes sell that while many others thought Hart would be a great POTUS, Hart perhaps wasn’t sold and that, however subconsciously, his self-immolation was inevitable. Jackman shows us the shame and surety raging inside Hart, but the script drops that for a third act in which it puts Hart on the defensive against everyone except himself, solely to prop up their theme.
Strangely enough, The Front Runner fares best in its understanding how women perceived to topple towering men solely for sport are always under cross-examination from their first utterance. Sara Paxton (as Rice) and Molly Ephraim (as Irene Kelly, a composite-character scheduler for Hart) share several scenes sequestered from scummy men on either side of the investigation. Rice feels compelled to rattle off her resume as the male inclination is that she’s just another dumb bimbo. Kelly is ostensibly there to front a friendly female face from Hart’s campaign lieutenants, but she finds bittersweet camaraderie in shared marginalization.
Rather than run with what’s working, The Front Runner instead hangs its hat on that borderline-reckless vilification of the free press pursuing such pesky things like truth and accountability from our politicians. Reitman’s film wants us to think it’s depicting a character assassination as tragic as the mortal ones at the Ambassador Hotel or Dealey Plaza. It’s just an embarrassing and misguided misfire trying to trace a path to our present moment.