"Not Compelling, Inspiring or Entertaining Enough"
Barely in time for the 2018 Midterm elections, THE FRONT RUNNER tells the story of 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart and how an illicit sexual liaison brought down his campaign and launched modern tabloid journalism. THE FRONT RUNNER has a strong pagan worldview with lots of strong foul language, offset somewhat by the fact that the movie paints Gary Hart in a very negative light.
In these days of 24-hour, non-stop news coverage, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when politicians thought they could get away with any sexual peccadilloes if they wished. THE FRONT RUNNER takes viewers back to the turning point at which politicians could no longer get away with having a zipper problem: the full-on meltdown of Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1988.
Hart was considered to be the unstoppable man to beat that year, despite having lost the 1984 nomination to Walter Mondale. Hart was seen as a handsome and brilliant policy wonk, but as depicted by Hugh Jackman in this movie, he was also arrogant to his staff, condescending about the campaign process and the press and an outright jerk to his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga).
In other words, it’s hard to believe he ever was the front runner in the first place, considering the fact that he apparently lacked any form of empathy or congeniality toward anyone other than the random women he’d spent his marriage chasing, but that complete lack of personality and the hubris involved in thinking he could run a campaign while dodging barbecues with voters and questions about his frequent marital separations shows just how much campaigns have changed in just three decades.
The movie opens with Hart’s concession call to Mondale in 1984 before leaping into his attempt to run again four years later. From the get-go, he’s clashing with his campaign staff. Especially over his insistence on forcing hordes of reporters to walk up a mountain in Colorado so he can have a nice backdrop rather than a traditional ballroom rally for his campaign launch announcement.
After just a week on the campaign trail, Hart feels the need to party on a yacht in Miami en route to a weekend in Bimini, during which he meets a pretty young blonde named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Director/co-writer Jason Reitman (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, UP IN THE AIR) makes an intriguing choice in zooming far out into the ocean as they leave the crowd onboard and disappear on their own, leaving viewers to speculate what if anything happened between them.
Shortly after, a fellow female passenger on the yacht and friend of Donna’s calls a Miami Herald reporter with the story of Hart hooking up with Rice onboard the yacht. Since the woman is afraid to give her name and has no photographic evidence to offer, the reporter is reluctant to go after the story until a surprising new detail catches his attention, and he and his editor engage in a Washington DC stakeout of Hart’s home.
This stakeout by the Herald reporters and subsequent confrontation with Hart seems outrageous when presented in stark closeup terms to viewers, even as such tactics have become the norm today in covering both Hollywood and Washington scandals. Contrasted with Hart’s questionably close friendship with a young male Washington Post reporter, who’s reluctant to wallow in the mud for a story, THE FRONT RUNNER sets up numerous ethical conflicts that are undeniably intriguing.
Basically, this movie explores the tangled open marriage of Hart with his wife and his treatment of other women. This leads to questions about whether a candidate’s personal lack of morals renders him an ineffective leader and how much right public figures have to privacy when running for or holding office. Obviously, this movie has a lot on its mind. The problem is, it forgets to be entertaining.
There’s almost no one to root for in THE FRONT RUNNER, as nearly every character in it is unsympathetic. Hart is an all-around jerk, his staff goes along with his arrogant belief that he owes the public nothing about his personal life, his wife is a doormat, and the reporters are realizing they’re starting a dangerous descent into modern-day mudslinging. Strangely, Paxton’s performance as Donna Rice and her friendship with the only senior female campaign worker, Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim), are the only people in the whole sordid mess who are given a chance to convey vulnerable emotion.
One can only wonder why Hugh Jackman even wanted such a thankless role in the first place. At a time when the public is burned out on political divisiveness and media oversaturation, the last thing moviegoers are likely going to want is two hours of film showing them how we got to such a national low point.
To its credit, THE FRONT RUNNER manages to convey Hart’s long history of infidelity and his likely but never concretely proven dalliance with Rice without actually depicting the adulterous behavior. Rather, Reitman leaves viewers to wonder along with the reporters about what if anything exactly happened between Hart and Rice. Despite this, Hart’s wife, Lee, is clearly depicted expressing her frustration with him for breaking the only rule she ever imposed on him – not to publicly embarrass her.
While adultery is obviously a major sin, THE FRONTRUNNER uses the issue of Hart’s adultery to create a compelling starting point for analyzing the myriad issues mentioned above. The movie’s R rating is mostly for its foul language. Were it not for that content, it might have qualified for a PG-13 rating.
Sadly, Jason Reitman directs THE FRONT RUNNER with a dispassionate documentary tone that keeps the events matter-of-fact, with minimal music until the one fun segment involving the sequence where the Miami reporters stalking Rice and Hart causes the movie to briefly perk up. Hitting theaters near election day might have seemed like a clever idea for Sony Pictures, but THE FRONT RUNNER is almost certain to be an also-ran in the box office and in the upcoming awards season derbies. Ultimately, THE FRONT RUNNER offers viewers little real insights about politics and personal morality. It generally picks the wrong targets to skewer. Extreme caution is advised.
THE FRONT RUNNER tells the story of 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart and how an illicit sexual liaison brought down his campaign and launched modern tabloid journalism. From the get-go, Hart clashes with his campaign staff. After just a week on the campaign trail, Hart feels the need to party on a yacht in Miami traveling to a weekend in Bimini. On the yacht, he meets a pretty young blonde named Donna Rice. Shortly after, a fellow female passenger on the yacht and friend of Donna’s calls a reporter about Hart’s hookup with Rice. Though he’s in an open marriage with his wife, Hart challenges reporters to follow him.
There’s no one to root for in THE FRONT RUNNER. Nearly every character is unsympathetic, and Hart is a jerk. The movie brings up some interesting moral dilemmas, so it has a lot on its mind. However, it forgets to be entertaining. THE FRONT RUNNER has a strong pagan worldview with lots of strong foul language, offset somewhat by the fact the movie paints Gary Hart in a very negative light.