The Front Runner
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim
Rated R for language, including some sexual references
1 hr. 53 min.
Reticent to ever discuss the personal, Colorado Senator Gary Hart, considered a shoo-in for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, was not having it when a question from a Washington Post reporter grazed too close. “Put a tail on me,” he snapped. “You’ll be very bored.”
That one sentence initiated a shift in what was fair game — and what wasn’t — on the campaign trail. It’s not as if candidates (or presidents, for the matter) were all free of proclivities, peccadilloes or moral turpitude. Simply put, the press had often looked the other way. That changed irreversibly in May of 1987, when Hart’s dare, as much as his indiscretion, set us on the path from policy to private lives as subject matter for reporters.
The Front Runner is important, powerful history. Directed by Jason Reitman, adapted from a book by former New York Times magazine writer Matt Bai, Reitman and Jay Carson, it serves as both a timepiece and a tautly paced examination of how we got to where we are today: deluged by tabloid material at our fingertips from every possible platform. The movie’s a primer on politics and journalism — past as prelude. This was a world where reporters used pay phones, developed film and tapped out their copy on electric typewriters and the word processors of the day. What surfaced was hard gotten.
The story begins in 1984, with Hart’s insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against stiff, staid, Walter Mondale. Hart came up short and Mondale was trounced, that November, by incumbent Ronald Reagan. The senator, however, was poised to win his party’s nomination in ’88. The film details the three weeks in 1987 that took Gary Hart from front runner to philanderer to fade out.
Hugh Jackman leads an exceptional cast as Hart, a Yale Law School graduate from Ottawa, Kansas, stirring and smart. He’s charismatic, but prickly when it comes to questions he feels are impertinent or personal. Jackman brings out every aspect of the man who would lead a country, felled by human failing. Vera Farmiga is his wife, Lee, her patience like wrought iron under stress, her features revealing the subtlest of vulnerability. She’s neither going to explode nor breakdown, yet pain seems to ooze through her pores. Farmiga has always been a formidable actress, and she owns this role.
Oscar winner J.K. Simmons is Hart’s weathered, acerbic, casual F-bomb throwing campaign boss, Bill Dixon. He is played with wit, but steely sobriety when it comes to his candidate’s fate.
Hart met a young model named Donna Rice on a short cruise to Bimini, 50 miles off the Florida coast, aboard a yacht called Monkey Business. A tip to Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald (Steve Zissis) ultimately leads to a stakeout of Hart’s Washington, D.C. townhouse, a confrontation between Herald reporters and the senator, photos and the first article.
Some in the press had ethical questions about the story. At the Washington Post, A. J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie, as a fictional reporter, a composite of several Post writers), tries to adhere to non-tabloid standards, but can’t. Hart and the Monkey Business become national punchlines. Rice gets caught in the firestorm as the other woman. At one point, debriefed by Dixon and others from the Hart campaign, she says, “I like his positions,” meaning his polices, but adding dark comedy to the situation.
The media does not fare well in The Front Runner. The less-than-noble aspects of journalism, the fourth estate, the bulwark against tyranny and impropriety, are exposed. The jackals feed hungrily as Hart, allegedly caught red-handed, tells them, “The people won’t stand for it.” The people did. They still do.