“Ideas have power.”
Covering the swift hero-to-zero demise of the all but once guaranteed Democratic Presidential nominee Gary Hart during his 1988 campaign, The Front Runner wastes no time in sending this van careening off the face of a cliff (the poster above brilliantly captures the film’s essence in one image). Here, the object of national conversation and critique only stays in motion because the brakes have been cut, and it’s finally brought to a halt when the country moves on to whichever controversy comes along next. The Front Runner surmises that history can repeat itself, and that without swift judiciousness, it can be even worse the next time around. Sounds pretty timely if you ask me.
Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) has the looks, the charm, and the political prowess to win the whole thing. In fact, most pundits expect him to come out on top. People volunteer and champion his cause, galvanizing a grass-roots candidacy with an apparent easy bid for residency in the White House, because, as it so happens, the guy’s just plain likable. He’s a man in a position of power though, and a handsome one at that, which often leads craven men towards the path of succumbing to the overwhelming amounts of attention and temptation. “A lot can happen in 3 weeks,” we’re told. In this case, it’s a lot of irreparable undoing.
It’s hard to imagine an actor out there better suited to live inside the many suits of Gary Hart. Jackman’s both a beloved performer – with critics and audiences around the world – and such a towering human being. So bold and broad and big in stature. The physicality he brings is necessary, especially when we watch this man fall out of the nation’s good graces in the blink of an eye. Jackman’s very, very good as Hart, and somehow the role feels terribly underwritten too. His personal life with wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) are under-served by the script, as are all the members of his campaign and his mistress Donna Rice (Sara Paxton does nail one great scene where she descends an escalator towards a pack of reporters). As politically relevant as the film remains to this day, its personality is rendered nearly null and void. In The Front Runner, Gary Hart comes across as a hardened man who refused to expose vulnerabilities and weaknesses to the general public. It says a lot about his demeanor, but very little about his sense of humanity.
The Front Runner is a good film though, well made and executed all around, save for one glaring issue. I found it disturbing that the weight of the picture’s entire morality rests upon the conscience of one of the movie’s only African-American characters. Why must he, a journalist (Mamoudou Athie) willing to ask hard questions, shoulder the majority of the load? It’s problematic, especially since the movie is about a Caucasian man who waves a white flag in the face of possible defeat. And while it’s noticeably flawed, what’s most interesting about Jason Reitman’s film is its connection to the watchdog journalism of the present. Three decades ago an alleged affair derailed an entire train. Two decades ago Clinton was impeached for similar transgressions. Now we have a Commander-in-Chief who’s completely incapable of feeling shame or empathy, and he’s been embraced for his willingness to speak his mind. We should all remember that although someone in an insane asylum can tell their respective truths, it doesn’t mean they aren’t factually wrong either. Substance matters. More of a political armistice than it is a standard biopic, The Front Runner sells itself a bit short, and still it has the gumption to understand that it’s a small cog in the process towards potential progress.
“This right here is why people don’t wanna be in public life. Because someone will dredge up something you said in a moment.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5