THE FRONT RUNNER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Ivan Reitman

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Kaitlyn Dever, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge, Toby Huss, Kevin Pollak, Evan Castelloe, Jennifer Landon, John Bedford Lloyd, William Walker, Bill Burr, Jonny Pasvolsky, Spencer Garrett, Gabriel Manak, Lee Armstrong, Molly Ephraim, Courtney Ford, Mark O’Brien, Josh Brener, Tommy Dewey, Jenna Kanell, Chris Coy, Oliver Cooper, Mamoudou Athie, Alex Karpovsky .

Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner (2018)

A week is a long time in politics, and three weeks is a long time on the campaign trail.

This latest drama from director Jason Reitman is a fictionalised account of the fall from grace of Gary Hart, a popular, handsome and charismatic politician who was almost certain to become the next President of the United States. Hart (played here by the likeable and charismatic Hugh Jackman) was popular with the general public, had lots of energy and ideas for the future. When he announced his campaign to run for the Democratic nomination in 1988 he was certainly the front runner.

But three weeks later his campaign and reputation was in tatters when the tabloids revealed an extra-marital affair. During a break from the campaign trail while in Florida Hart took a relaxing boat cruise, which is where he met Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), a beautiful pharmaceutical company representative. Bumbling and unscrupulous Miami reporter Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis, from the HBO series Togetherness, etc) stumbled upon the affair and followed Hart around. He eventually exposed Hart’s infidelity through the newspapers. Rather than fight on and try to ride out the media storm, Hart withdrew from the campaign trail, much to the frustration of his staff and advisors who try to do damage control.

The Front Runner is based on the 2014 book All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, written by journalist Mat Bai, who co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and Jay Carson (a producer of tv series House Of Cards). The film explores the issue of the responsibilities and ethics of journalists, tabloid journalism versus serious reporting, the thin line between public image and private life, and the hypocrisy of politics. This was the emergence of tabloid journalism as a real force in shaping news stories for public consumption.

The film is a lot more straightforward in construction and intent than some other recent true life political biopics like Vice, Adam McKay’s kinetic and visually dynamic take down of former Vice President Dick Cheney who led the world to an unnecessary war for personal gain and greed. But this is something of a wasted opportunity as it doesn’t really try to address the moral behaviour of contemporary politicians, particularly given the controversial current occupant of the White House. Nor does it try to suggest that America may have been a different place if Hart had not quit the race and had gone on to become President (given that he is not the first politician to have had illicit sexual dalliances).

Reitman’s films like Up In The Air, Juno, etc have all dealt with flawed characters and had a strong insights. The Front Runner is something of a disappointing and dull affair, a lesser film in his solid body of work, and lacks insight or a sense of immediacy, contemporary relevance and urgency. There is far too much rapid fire political speak that is almost Altmanesque in tone, but much of it goes over the head of the audience. Visually the film resembles an 80s made for television drama, with the cinematography from regular collaborator Eric Steelberg particularly grainy in tone. The frenetic editing from Stefan Grube (Tully, etc) gives the film an unfocused feel though. The period detail looks authentic.

Reitman however continues to draw strong performances from his ensemble cast. Jackman normally has a likeable presence. He is cast a little against type here as a flawed and morally ambiguous character, but he delivers a solid and nuanced performance as a man under pressure and struggling to hold it all together while thrust uncomfortably into the spotlight. He brings a swaggering demeanour to his performance but fails to get under the skin of the character, who remains elusive.

Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel, etc) brings a wounded dignity to her performance as his long suffering wife Lee, but she is often sidelined. J K Simmons (a regular in Reitman’s films) is wonderfully cynical and unapologetically gruff and intimidating as Bill Dixon, Hart’s long time friend and veteran campaign manager. Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects, etc) makes the most of his couple of scenes as a smug editor.

And Alfred Molina joins the likes of Jason Robards jr and Tom Hanks in playing Ben Bradlee, the legendary and powerful editor in chief of The Washington Post who debates the ethics of covering the story with his top reporters. The Washington Post of course had previously exposed other political stories such as the Watergate break in that eventually brought down the Nixon administration and the Pentagon Papers which exposed America’s involvement in Southeast Asia over the course of decades and revealed the way the government had  systematically misled the public. Maybe we are all a little more cynical or just jaded by the current state of politics, or don’t care about a 30 year old scandal, because The Front Runner has bombed in the US and given Jackman a rare box office failure.

★★☆

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