You may be thinking, “Do we really need a feature film about Gary Hart’s failed 1988 presidential campaign?” I’ll give you three reasons why you’re wrong: 1) Any Jason Reitman film is a goddamned gift, 2) Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, and 3) men behaving badly, sex, power, and the proper journalistic response are as relevant as ever. Some of the best science fiction is a proxy for dealing with issues too charged to take on directly. So it is with historical dramas, even ones from living memory.
Younger readers may not know the background, but Gary Hart was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1988. He had the magic combination of good looks, Senate experience, and policy mastery that could easily have taken him all the way to the White House. Instead, the charismatically challenged Michael Dukakis got the nomination and lost to the only barely more charming George H. W. Bush. Imagine how history would have played out differently with President Hart — no Gulf War? No subsequent two-year term of President George W. Bush? No follow-on invasion of Iraq?
We’ll never know because Hart was politically destroyed by an affair with Donna Rice. In an era where extramarital affairs are approximately the 35th most scandalous thing this president, has done, this almost seems quaint. But the Hart story takes on special relevance because it marked a turning point in the media, where the private lives of American presidents (at least their sex lives) were suddenly fair game.
“Do we really need a feature film about Gary Hart’s failed 1988 presidential campaign? I’ll give you three reasons why…”
Jason Reitman is already a hell of a director, giving us such gems as Juno and Up in the Air. But with The Front Runner he’s taking his mastery of the craft to a new level. There’s nothing heavy-handed about it — it just seems to present the details of the events as they unfolded with commentary. But of course, this is an illusion. Every line of dialog, every camera angle, every beat is precisely engineered.
At the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Reitman mentioned that one of his inspirations was the 1972 film The Candidate, starring Robert Redford. He mentioned that almost every frame of that film has many things going on. It is up to the audience to choose what to focus on. That’s the exact approach he has adopted here — characters are speaking in the foreground, while in the background there’s something on the TV. A scene seems like it is about one thing, but it is really about something deeper. There are many possible perspectives, and all of them are legitimate in their own way. The result is a film that evokes some of the great films of the 70s, when naturalism and moral ambiguity reigned supreme. I’d even compare The Front Runner favorably to another Redford-starring political takedown drama from the 70s — All the President’s Men.
This all starts from the script, and the dialog here is so punchy, and perfectly crafted that I had to look to make sure it wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin (actually you can tell because these characters talk like people, not writers). It is based on a book by Matt Bai, All the Truth is Out, though Bai, Reitman, and Jay Carson share writing credits. Matt Bai is a seasoned political reporter, while Carson is a former political staffer and technical consultant and producer on House of Cards. Their campaign experience shows — the film feels effortlessly true.
“…the dialog here is so punchy and perfectly crafted…I had to make sure it wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin…”
Yet another strength is the astounding cast. Hugh Jackman has the looks and gravitas to carry off Hart, and without much to sell him as this real person except an exceptional 80s coiffure, he has to do it with the intensity of the performance. It works. Vera Farmiga brings the resigned yet smoldering outrage as Hart’s wife Lee. There’s a monster cast of fellow politicians, reporters, and campaign officials, including the likes of Alfred Molina, Kevin Pollak, and even Mike Judge(!). But my favorite performance is from Reitman regular J. K. Simmons. His gruff, grizzled campaign manager Bill Dixon is peak Simmons. As usual, he steals every scene he’s in.
Go see The Front Runner to see an army of cinematic masters at the top of their game. But it is the ideas within it that will stick with you long after the film is over. What do we want out of our politicians? What do we want out of the media? I don’t have all the answers, but I know our current political discourse is broken. We can at least start searching in one of the places where it all started to go wrong.
The Front Runner (2018) Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, Jason Reitman. Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton.
10 out of 10 stars