THE FRONT RUNNER
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Jason Reitman, based on Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.
J. K. Simmons
Runtime: 113 mins.
Australian release date: 31 January 2019
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 4 December 2018.
The Front Runner is the new film from Jason Reitman, the director of such terrific titles as Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air, Men, Women & Children and, last year, Tully. The Aaron Sorkin-esque script outwardly tells the story of Gary Hart, the charismatic front runner for the Democratic nomination in the 1988 presidential race, and the week in 1987 his candidacy blew up after the press released details of an extra-marital affair he was having. The subtext, however, is the role of the media in reporting the private life of politicians and how much intimate information the public is entitled to know about candidates running for office. It’s a fascinating question and if Reitman and his co-writers haven’t answered it precisely in The Front Runner they can hardly be blamed; the answer seems to be fluid, depending on the times, the personalities at play and the media outlets involved, along with a host of other variables.
The film begins in 1984 at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, when Hart narrowly missed out on the Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale (Mondale ultimately lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan). Cut to a few years later and Hart is ready to throw his hat into the ring once more, with gun political advisor Bill Dixon (J. K. Simmons) at his side. Dixon is pumped, saying he’s never known a contender so able to distil a complex political platform into an easily digestible message for the masses. His only misgiving is that Hart hates the personal side of campaigning. The candidate thinks that his home life should be of no interest to voters, only his principles and his campaign promises, so when word gets out that he’s playing around he goads the press into following him. Big mistake. A team from The Miami Herald flew to Washington and staked out the townhouse where he was having a tryst with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and, a few weeks after the Herald published their story and the national press picked up on it, Hart suspended his campaign.
Hugh Jackman is brilliant as the man who refused to see that his womanising could affect his run for high office. After all, up until that point, presidential peccadilloes had been ignored by the media, so why should 1987 be any different, seemed to be his thinking. What was important to Hart was what you believed in. It’s a very strong portrayal and Jackman missed out on an Oscar nom probably because he was up against Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice. In fact, The Front Runner seems to have been entirely overlooked by the Academy and the film-going public, having failed at the US box office, which is a great pity. Jackman and J. K. Simmons both deliver high-octane performances. One suspects that there could be some audience fatigue with the subject of American politics after Vice and the daily revelations emanating from Washington DC. In today’s ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ political world, a depiction of the week in which media coverage of that world changed seems somewhat ho-hum. Nowadays, a US presidential nominee can be exposed for having affairs with Playboy bunnies and porn stars and even evangelical voters barely raise an eyebrow.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, who investigated the media’s conduct in the Hart affair for the Los Angeles Times, is quoted as saying, “The biggest flaw in Bai’s what-if fantasy... is that Gary Hart was almost certainly not going to be elected. This incident, this woman, and the various other odd edges about Hart were all clearly in the sights of [the late political strategist] Lee Atwater and the GOP. And Hart was utterly unprepared politically or psychologically to defend himself for the activities, personal and political, that they were going to attack him for. There is so much more to this story than blaming the media. It is sad that we have journalists trying to re-litigate what happened and getting it wrong. It might make for a nice myth. But it ain’t good history.” He may be right, up to a point, and Reitman certainly does paint a fairly glossy picture of Hart in The Front Runner but this much we know for sure, relations between US politicians and the media was never quite the same again after Gary Hart.