The Front Runner (2018)

The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s absorbing dredge into presidential favourite Gary Hart’s downfall is a timely take on US politics and morality then and now.

Too Much Monkey Business

by Alexa Dalby

The Front Runner

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Gary Hart was a young, charismatic Colorado senator and the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. He was also a compulsive womaniser, which led to his disgrace.

Fact-based drama The Front Runner takes us into the mêlée of his campaign. It’s portrayed as a fast-moving, rough and tumble swirl, with a campaign manager (J.K. Simmons) as cynical as you might expect. Yet amid this, Hart comes across as intelligent, idealistic and seems essentially to be a decent man, focussed on broad issues, impatient with the required photo opps up Colorado mountains.

Hugh Jackman is commanding and somehow pitiable as Hart. As a family man, he seems devoted to his wife and daughter (supportive Vera Farmiga and Kaitlyn Dever). As a politician, we will never know if he was merely slick or if could he have been a reformer. Though he was brought down by his own flaws, he was also unlucky to have been behaving so recklessly when the intrusive journalism we take for granted today was being born. Reporters at the Miami Herald got wind of his infidelities and staked out his Washington townhouse at night with a camera, eventually revealing to the country his affair with a young woman, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Interestingly, Rice is portrayed sympathetically as a victim and not as a bimbo.

There’s ethical debate about the role of the press between the gossip-raking tabloid reporters (Steve Zissis, Kevin Pollak) and the more strait-laced Washington Post (Mamoudou Athie). However, the fallout from the lurid newspaper revelations of a sex scandal scuppered Hart’s political career. Although it’s only thirty years ago, it was such a different time and it’s shocking to contemplate the huge changes in attitudes since then. What was then a resigning matter would probably be shrugged off now – along with much, much worse.

Directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Tully, Labor Day) the film is based on Matt Bai’s book about the Hart campaign, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. It’s well acted, absorbing and a surprisingly timely insight on the present-day US political scene.

The Front Runner screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 11 January 2019 in the UK.

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