There are a plethora of overripe, tawdry tales of scandal in the history of politics, and the perfect fodder for a certain type of film they certainly are. Jason Reitman, though, has gone another way with THE FRONT RUNNER, a cautionary tale of hubris and hormones as applied to the aborted Gary Hart presidential run in 1988. Instead of merely stirring up our prurient interest and moral umbrage, he has given us a thoughtful, anarchically lively, film about the obligations of the candidate and the responsibilities of the press that force us to question both. And then he does something kind of brilliant, kind of infuriating. Mr. Reitman has asked us to draw our own conclusions.
To review, in 1987, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was considered to have the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party all sewn up. He had made a memorable, if failed, bid in 1984, and with his intellect and good (Kennedy-esque) looks, he won the unfettered adoration of the public and the grudging admiration of the press. In a stunning turn of events, it all went precipitously south, and it’s the three weeks in which that happened that concern the film.
Rumors had floated for years that he had an “arrangement” with his wife of almost thirty years, Lee (Vera Farmiga) that allowed him to philander discreetly. Their brief separation, a potential candidacy killer in those simpler times, brought less discretion. The facts showed him to be a policy wonk with a laudable legislative record. When Hart, who famously failed to see the point of photo ops, and even more famously refused to talk about his private life, told a reporter to follow him around if he had any suspicions, That Hart had added, for good measure, that it would be boring for all of them only adds to the irony of what was to come.
Told from the vantage point of those around him, Hart remains a cipher, though one extremely well-played by Jackman. The imperious distaste for playing the PR game comes off, at least a little, as an ethical stance as well as a personal choice. There is something sweetly innocent about his awkwardness when asked how it feels to be home when he visits his boyhood home. It’s a stance revealed in full as the badly concealed impatience with a glad-handing cruise on the soon-to-be-infamous Monkey Business gives way to a genuine smile when blonde and comely Donna Rice introduces herself to him, and Hart’s attention, perfunctory at best before, becomes laser focused as his eyes light up with sparked interest.
The press around him is nothing so much as a gaggle of a Greek chorus battling ennui and cynicism as another political season begins, parsing his appeal between bon mots designed as much to one up each other than offer insight. Hart’s operatives, on the other hand, led by the always reliable J.K. Simmons, are an idealistic bunch, bemused by a candidate interesting in running his campaign solely on his ideas, and not placing his family on public display in a soppy bid for votes. They, too, parse the candidate, but with affection, but not without political savvy. In their midst is Hart and AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie). a newish reported for the New York Times, still in possession of his idealism, who bonds with the candidate during air turbulence, and challenges him during the political turbulence of what ensues when a reporter from the Miami Herald (Steve Zissis) gets a tip about Hart’s putative relationship with Rice, and turns traditional political coverage into tabloid news.
In the course of the film, we are treated to a finely embedded short-course on journalism then and now, from the corps turning a blind eye to JFK’s dalliances, to Hart’s righteous indignation about being asked why Rice was at his townhouse and what she did there. At this point, everyone, from Hart to his wife, to his staff, to the press covering him, become entangled in something of quagmire of those ethics of which Hart is so enamored. How much does the public need to know? How does what a candidate does personally is a reflection of his or her worthiness to hold office? Reitman never stacks the deck for one side or another, giving equal weight to Hart’s takedown of the editor (Kevin Pollock) who ran the initial story without having all the facts, and to the genuine questions of character that crop up throughout about the candidate. When does a flaw become an insurmountable obstacle to holding office, and who get to decide?
Most notable is how THE FRONT RUNNER restores much deserved dignity to the two women at the core of the story. Lee, who is insulted that the paparazzi camped on her doorstep after the news breaks in order to exploit her feelings of humiliation. They’re not theirs, they’re mine Farmiga says with the steely firmness within the emotional upheaval. This is not a woman who wallows in self-pity. This is a woman who has made carefully considered choices about her marriage and stands by them as long as her husband plays by the rules they have set for themselves. Rice (Sara Paxton), who would have been a punchline in a lesser work, has her moment, too, and it is visceral. Mascara running, she tells one of Hart’s handlers (J.K. Simmons), her considerable list of cerebral accomplishments, and then finishes it by telling him that she has spent her life working so hard so that men wouldn’t look at her the way he is looking at her now.
What actually happened in the townhouse on that fateful night in 1988? THE FRONTRUNNER leaves that open and makes a case for doing so. Even though we know the ending of this story, the fast-paced, quick-witted style Reitman uses, the trope of a satire to tell a tragedy of far-reaching proportions, he has created a film that plays as a political thriller as well as a very personal drama.