If you want to know why current politics are the way they areâ€”with candidatesâ€™ characters discussed more than their policies, and political reporters competing with gossip columnistsâ€”director Jason Reitman asks you look back to 1988.
Thatâ€™s when Sen. Gary Hart was already The Front Runner in the soon-to-start Presidential campaignâ€”and saw his easy path to the Democratic nomination, and probable Election Day win, derailed by endless gossip about extramarital escapades.
Was that a good thing? Should a politicianâ€™s private life stay private? Or is the fact that a person may have lied in one thing proof that theyâ€™ll lie in another? Those are topics worth debating. You probably already have your opinions. Reitman has his.
But The Front Runner works hard to accommodate all points of view.
It doesnâ€™t â€śproveâ€ť that Hart and Donna Rice slept together (although itâ€™s clear Hartâ€™s wife doesnâ€™t doubt it). And while it certainly doesnâ€™t applaud the journalists who chased after him, it wonders just what that old gentlemenâ€™s agreementâ€”whatever happens on the campaign trail, stays on the campaign trailâ€”said about the way women were disrespected and dismissed.
Whatever your views on all this, expect to see The Front Runner thoroughly respect and challenge them.
Also expect to see a compelling, carefully detailed, thoughtfully constructed political drama thatâ€™s both a portrait of one individual, whose intellect and idealism sometimes seem thwarted by his own stubbornness and ego, and of a system that appears almost designed to bring out the worst in everyone. (Not surprisingly, Reitman has said his movie model for this was The Candidate.)
His film focuses on three weeks in the Hart campaign withâ€”an outside-the-box choiceâ€”Hugh Jackman as the candidate. Itâ€™s smart casting, actually, and sets up an interesting dynamic. Jackmanâ€™s been best knownâ€”whether onstage or in his various Wolverine appearancesâ€”as a man whoâ€™s bursting with honest emotion. Here heâ€™s playing, except for a few telling scenes, someone who refuses to give anything away. It creates an intriguing, almost palpable tension.
Heâ€™s well-partnered by a fiery J.K. Simmons as his loyal but frustrated campaign manager and a heartbreaking Vera Farmiga as his long-suffering wife. Sara Paxton gives Donna Rice more human consideration than anyone did back then, while Molly Ephraim plays a campaign staffer with some conflicted feelings about the very male lens all this is seen through.
If the casting goes awry at all, itâ€™s when Reitman brings in Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee. Not that Molina isnâ€™t a good actor, but casting him as the lean and elegant Bradlee is a bit like bringing in Oliver Platt to play William F. Buckley.
And, even as audiences are taking a few minutes to figure out that that is, indeed, who Molina is supposed to be, other complications crowd the scene. Along with The Candidate, Reitman seems to have been inspired by Robert Altman, and many scenes are overstuffed with unidentified characters, all talking over one another and referring to people we still havenâ€™t met. For the first ten minutes, itâ€™s hard to find your feet.
But then the story begins to unfold and deepen.
Hartâ€™s early disgust with even the regular requirements of a political campaignâ€”attending a big barbecue, posing for a People coverâ€”begins to betray a certain dangerous sense of self-importance. The rush to get the story (on the journalistsâ€™ end) and to suppress it (on the campaignâ€™s) leaves broken friendships and ruined reputations in its wake.
The filmâ€™s very narrow focus leaves some things off the screen. Thereâ€™s no mention of the famous National Enquirer photoâ€”which came out laterâ€”of Rice sitting on Hartâ€™s lap while the yacht Monkey Business bobbed in the background. Or of Hartâ€™s attempt, after withdrawing, to re-enter the campaign months later (before being roundly trounced).
But thereâ€™s a lot here as it is.
Certainly Hartâ€™s ideasâ€”on the environment, on the economy, on educationâ€”are powerful (and would be forward-thinking, even today). But if he was as arrogant, or simply as careless, as the newspaper stories suggested, wouldnâ€™t that have made it difficult to turn those policies into law? And if the journalists hadnâ€™t investigated his personal life, or had kept news back from their readers, would that have been more, or less, ethical than digging deep?
The Front Runner,rightfully, doesnâ€™t provide any answers to those questions. But it does ask themâ€”and demands we do, too.