The Front Runner review: The thorny story of a womanising politician is told too timidly

Hugh Jackman plays Gary Hart, a politician disgraced by the press during his campaign to become a presidential nominee in 1987

Clarisse Loughrey
Saturday 12 January 2019 09:21
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The Front Runner - Trailer

Dir: Jason Reitman; Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J K Simmons, and Alfred Molina. Cert: 15, 113 mins

The Front Runner presents a story that feels unrecognisable to us now: a politician brought down by something so simple as an alleged extramarital affair. Can you imagine that? In 1987, Gary Hart, played here by Hugh Jackman, was the emblem of America’s bright future as he launched a campaign to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Fuelled by righteous fire, by turns smooth and quick-witted in his nature, he swiftly established himself as the clear favourite. Rumours, however, had started to surface. There were whispers that Hart, a married man, was a known womaniser.

In return, he dared the press to “follow me around, I don’t care”. It backfired spectacularly. The Miami Herald staked out his home and, the same day his challenge to the press was published, they unleashed their claims that Hart had spent the weekend with a young woman, later identified as Donna Rice. The media erupted into a feeding frenzy, and as the conversation shifted irreparably from his public ideals to his private defects, Hart was forced to step down from the race.

Director Jason Reitman, behind Juno and last year’s Tully, has proven his ability to expose human nature’s inconsistencies in the past, but that skill is lacking here. Hindsight shows us that Hart’s case was a turning point in American politics, but the question that remains is: where should we lay the blame? Were the press at fault for turning issues-based political discourse into tabloid sensationalism? Was it merely what the general public craved? After decades of turning a blind eye to the personal affairs of presidents (John F Kennedy is name-dropped in the film), did the Watergate scandal empower the press as moral arbiters of the powerful? Or did Hart implicitly betray the trust of the American people in his actions?

It’s a thorny subject, but there’s a sense that Reitman – who co-wrote the script alongside Jay Carson and Matt Bai, author of the film’s source material, the 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid – has been defeated by it. The Front Runner fails to answer any of these questions, but it also fails to provide us with the tools to make our own judgement, by introducing every possible angle without committing to a single one.

Its semi-tragic treatment of Hart’s downfall would appear to demonise the press, yet Reitman is also aware of how this story sits within today’s context, when it’s more apparent than ever how destructive a man’s abuse of his power can be for women. As The Washington Post’s Ann Devroy (played by Ari Graynor) states: “He is a man with power and opportunity. And that takes responsibility.” Yet, while The Front Runner is clearly sympathetic to the women embroiled in this scandal, from his wife Oletha (Vera Farmiga) to Rice herself (Sara Paxton), it lacks the courage to argue their case with any conviction – the ruinous effect this scandal has had on their lives is suggested but never explored.

The Front Runner’s timidity extends even to the portrayal of Hart himself. Rather than run the risk of suggesting he is either the victim or villain of this piece, the film instead allows him to recede into the background, leaving Jackman and his trademark charisma with very little to do.


Its remedy is to sell itself as an ensemble piece. Snappy editing from Stefan Grube and Reitman’s Altmanesque use of overlapping dialogue allows the film to spring back and forth between opposing camps with style, with sturdy and reliable performances from the likes of JK Simmons, as Hart’s campaign manager, and Alfred Molina, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. This approach at least keeps things moving at a brisk pace but, ultimately, it’s a film that makes a lot of noise without having much to say.

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