Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Front Runner

30 years later, The Front Runner takes a look back at the fall of Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) who in the space of three weeks went from the presumptive Democratic nominee for the President of the United States to a cautionary tale. After some initial set-up laying the groundwork for the stranglehold Hart had on his party's nomination in 1988, the script by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and director Jason Reitman dives into Hart's relationship with the media covering his campaign and his extra-marital indiscretion which, when brought to light, would be the end of his political career.

The Front Runner plays like a trainwreck in slow motion. It's somewhat torturous to watch unfold seeing everything the uncompromising Hart worked for fall apart so quickly. Everyone, except Hart can see what's coming. Unable to fathom how his personal life was the business of either the media or voters, Hart struggled with handling the situation which quickly escalated out of control as it opened the doors to a new form of tabloid journalism in politics (a slippery slope Hart himself commented on during the final speech of his campaign).

The film's biggest weakness is the two-dimensional main character. Other than his marital infidelities, a single tragic flaw, and his political "genius," the film struggles to offer a fully-formed view of the man. Placed on a pedestal by the film for his charm and political know-how (seriously, you would think Hart was the second coming of Thomas Jefferson), we never really get to know Gary Hart as a person. He is both the bright star of the Democratic party and the tragic figure of his own actions, both saint and sinner, but he is rarely just a man. His personal motivations aren't shared with his campaign team, reporters, nor the audience. Unlike Reitman's fictional leading characters, too much of Hart doesn't make it into frame.

Although I don't see much of a resemblance between Hart and Hugh Jackman, the actor owns the role of the idealistic senator brought down by his own libido (although the film never really gets into why Hart cheated). A strong supporting cast includes Vera Farmiga as Hart's wife, J.K. Simmons and Molly Ephraim as key members of Hart's campaign team, Mamoudou Athie and Steve Zissis as reporters for the Washington Post and Miami Herald receptively, and Sara Paxton as the woman whose relationship with the senator would secure the White House for the Republicans for four more years.

Unable to flesh out Hart as more than the architect of his demise, and unwilling to let any of the supporting cast step-up to provide a more grounded singular perspective for the film, The Front Runner struggles at times with what story it wants to tell. That said, there's quite a bit here that works, including Jackman's performance, that hearkens back to a simpler time of political journalism and the events which brought an end to that era.

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