The Front Runner
Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, Jay Carons
Based on “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” by Matt Bai
Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina
The year is 1988. I was in seventh grade when Colorado Senator Gary Hart announced his presidential campaign. I was more interested in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ than I was about a presidential election because I was too young to appreciate that particular race and the time I lived in. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse and Reagan was making his overtures to Gorbachev as they sued for peace.
At the same time, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was running an honest campaign. He was squeaky clean as far as the media was concerned and that’s because the mainstream media wasn’t interest in sensationalist press; we weren’t yet on the 24 by 7 news cycle just yet. But, when the Miami Herald gets wind of gossip that could affect Hart’s campaign, the birth of politics gone tabloid is born.
Let me get this out of the way: “The Front Runner” is a very awkward film. It starts with the characterization of Hart. He’s the All-American candidate with a wife and a daughter; he keeps his skeletons in the closet and away from the media. The problem is that Hart is a static character. He’s so overprotective of his privacy because he doesn’t believe that it is the media’s business what he does, but at the same time, he encourages reporters to follow him, goading them.
Jackman’s performance was fine. He transitions from lumberjack to politician to family man just fine. He gets angry, but it is without much aggression as if the games he’s playing are funny. I was waiting for the metal claws to come out whenever we see Hart get upset, but instead it’s a steady, even-keeled and bland performance.
Vera Farmiga, on the other hand, delivers a heart-wrenching performance as his wife, Lee. When the news breaks about her husband’s indiscretions, she isolates herself to avoid the press and the pressure on their daughter, Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). To get her aggressions out, she plays the piano, violently. There was a dignity about her musical performance and to Farmiga’s credit, that is her playing the piano. This was part of the genius of Reitman’s direction: where we couldn’t get much emotional range out of Jackman, we got it in spades from the other members of the cast, including J. K. Simmons in yet another brilliant turn as Bill Dixon, Hart’s chief of staff. He is responsible for cleaning up the mess left behind by the scandal. When Hart won’t talk to reporters, Simmons’s temper just leaps off the screen; it’s sublime.
There was an ongoing gag between Hart and a Washington Post reporter, AJ Parker played by Mamoudou Athie in which Hart encourages Parker to read “War and Peace,” which is meant to be symbolic of their relationship. Athie’s performance is very strong for such a young actor; the trouble is that the story thread just trails off.
The story by Reitman, Jay Carons and Matt Bai, based on Bai’s novel, attempts to tackle a number of issues, but never fully explores them over the course of the film. The political aspects of the story read “Aaron Sorkin,” but don’t play like it because we’re stuck on protecting Hart from the tragedy of his own life. The story foretells so many truths about our reality today that it was painful because it was awkward. It couldn’t be funny and it couldn’t be dramatic; both emotions were incongruous to the story trying to be told.
There are some solid ideas worth exploring in “The Front Runner.” It’s too bad that the sensationalism it tries so hard to avoid ends up cannibalizing itself.
1.5 out of 4 stars