For a presidential sure-thing, Gary Hart is not a particularly well or fondly remembered name. In the race for democratic nomination in 1988, Hart spectacularly fell from grace – the true story of Jason Reitman’s new political thriller, The Front Runner.
For those that don’t remember, Hart’s presidential run was cut short when The Miami Herald published a story suggesting the married father Hart was having an affair with Donna Rice, a journalist he’d been spotted with in Florida and Washington D.C. The wholesome and traditional public image which served him so well was dashed in an instant, forcing Hart to concede a race that would eventually see George Bush become President.
Opening with a wonderful long take of a hotel forecourt ablaze with media in 1984, Hart fails at his first attempt but is inspired nonetheless, jumping forward to 1988 where the now galvanised Senator finds the democratic presidential nomination his race to lose. Hart (Hugh Jackman), and his top staff (J.K Simmons, Chris Coy, Molly Ephraim) quickly find themselves in a cat and mouse game with a few disgruntled journalists. The bulk of the film thereafter is a very tribalist account of the story; the journalists tote truth and political transparency as their doctrine, Hart fights for his right to privacy, and the women (particularly staffer Irene Kelly and Donna Rice, who strike up an interesting relationship) all find themselves on their own islands of moral perspective.
As a thriller that by and large leaves the actual politics out, (aside from painting Hart as a succinct statesman) The Front Runner is far more concerned with the relationships between the journalists, political staff and Hart himself. Considering the scale of the task at hand, which sees Hart announce his run in a press conference atop a Colorado mountain, Reitman’s film is otherwise generally understated in execution. Very little attention is paid to the numbers game of the romanticised convoy campaign trail, as Reitman (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has chosen to focus on the people inside the story, rather than the statistical ski slope model that these movies so often stick to.
As Hart, the in-form Jackman stands behind a shield of privacy, never giving off a whiff of shame. He even keeps his closest staff in the dark, much to their frustration. The ensemble cast are excellently brought together and work well with each other, despite some questionable hair and dress senses – though the film does has a sense of humour, mostly found through tension-breaking wisecracks and campaign manager Bill Dixon’s (Simmons) very blunt sense of humour. Sarah Paxton is fantastic as Donna Rice, stealing all of her scenes as a fragile woman who had to fight tooth and nail to disassociate herself from a “bimbo” image, despite her remarkable academic and work achievements.
Within the debate about the right to a private life while holding office are a handful of references to the dangers of populism invading politics, which modern America knows all too well. In one scene the editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee laughs about the amnesty between journalists and the many women who became relevant in the wake of JFK’s assassination. No such mercy was offered to Hart and Bradlee laments this witch-hunt direction the media is taking. Historic political films often have a message buried within for the modern political world and this one is no different.
Particular praise is due to the camerawork of Eric Steelberg, who finds a way of capturing stuffy hotel room meetings and speeches beautifully with longer takes and creative perspectives, as well as the percussive rattling of typewriter keys used by Rob Simonsen to compliment his modest score. The Front Runner is peak style if nothing else, incorporating archive footage and old audio recordings seamlessly into the modern narrative for a very well rounded if somewhat unadventurous story.
A well executed film which in true journalistic fashion, presents the information without actually taking a side, The Front Runner scores points with excellent performances and style, but misses out on some real meat by not exploring more of the moral ambiguity therein.