Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is a true political story that transfixed the nation three decades ago. The Presidential campaign of Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) happened at a time just as cable was set to dominate how we get our news. Newspapers could see it coming and The Miami Herald, for better or worse, got ahead of the curve by venturing into tabloid territory. The Washington Post here is uncertain whether they should veer in that direction. However, they see the sensationalism train beginning to roll and can’t be the highbrow publication to pump the brakes.
It was The Post that exploited a massive Commander-in-Chief scandals a few years prior with Watergate. Here it’s the extramarital activities of Hart. We first witness him in 1984 conceding to Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who would lose badly to President Reagan. Yet his run wasn’t wasted as he becomes the film’s title four years later. He appears set to top the ticket until three wild weeks occur in 1987. It involves his relationship with a young woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and the media’s fixation on it. The days of reporters looking the other way when it comes to extracurricular activity is finished.
In this screenplay from Reitman, Matt Bai, and Jay Carson, Hart is alternatively seen as a sympathetic figure while not completely ignoring that he was a lousy spouse. Vera Farmiga is wife Lee and she’s given a few moments to shine as his conflicted partner. Her performance, while more limited in time, is the strongest. She emerges as the most fascinating character, but the marriage is given short treatment. This film is more geared towards critiquing our feeding frenzy media landscape. And while the times were a-changin’ thirty years ago, the script never finds an angle to shed any meaningful light on it.
Candidate Hart himself didn’t see the tide turning and felt his personal life was just that. As played by Jackman, he’s an enigma focused on policy proposals and not the show biz acumen that comes with the territory (let’s not forget he’s attempting to succeed the first movie star POTUS). It frustrates staff including his campaign manager (J.K. Simmons). They believe in him, but realize he gets in his own way.
The Front Runner tries to say Important Things about a campaign that’s influenced all that have followed. Hart’s foibles in our current environment may be considered quaint. That said, the pic rarely makes its points seem bold or fresh. There’s been fictional politico tales such as Primary Colors and Bulworth that were more entertaining and perceptive in their take on this particular universe. This lies toward the back of the pack in the genre.
** (out of four)