The Front Runner, a drama about the implosion of Democratic politician Gary Hart‘s 1988 presidential campaign due to a sex scandal, was warmly received late Friday evening at its Telluride Film Festival world premiere at the Herzog Theatre.
Starring Hugh Jackman as Hart, the latest film from writer-director Jason Reitman will be released on Nov. 7 by Sony, which would love for it to follow in the footsteps of two prior Reitman films, 2007’s Juno and 2009’s Up in the Air, which were unveiled at Telluride and went on to best picture Oscar nominations.
The Front Runner is Reitman’s most awards-friendly effort since those earlier productions, but, it still seems to me that it will face real challenges as it enters Hollywood’s own best picture primary in hopes of securing a nomination. More plausible, but also far from assured, are noms for lead actor Jackman (an Oscar nominee for 2012’s Les Miserables), who handles himself well in a more traditionally dramatic role than we usually see him play, and supporting actress Vera Farmiga (an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air), who plays Hart’s wife of many years, and elevates everything she’s a part of.
Reitman has always been great at casting strong character actors in his films, and this one proves to be no exception. It has been called “Altman-esque” by some because of the sheer number of actors who have speaking roles in it. Fortunately, among them are first-rate, repeat Reitman collaborators J.K. Simmons and Kaitlyn Dever. Unfortunately, as was the case with another political film with a large ensemble, 2006’s Bobby, only a few of them — including comedians Bill Burr and Kevin Pollak — have anything substantial to do.
Adapted by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Reitman from Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out, The Front Runner chronicles how Hart’s looks and charm helped to catapult him to the head of the pack of Democratic presidential contenders in 1988. It also dissects how his wandering eye and naivete about the increasing tabloidization of political coverage nixed his prospects just three weeks into his campaign.
There are certainly factors that may hinder the film’s prospects with awards voters. For one thing, Jackman, while dashingly handsome and endlessly charming, as demanded by the part, looks nothing like Hart did 30 years ago. For another, it’s strange that the photo most associated with Hart’s downfall (of a woman sitting on his lap), or at least a recreation of it, is nowhere to be seen in the film.
The best thing the film has going for it is its timing.
People too young to remember Hart, but old enough to be familiar with the rise of Donald Trump, will have a hard time imagining that being — or being labeled — a “womanizer” (after a consensual affair, no less) could bring down a presidential candidate. But, sure enough, that’s what happened. And, as the film suggests, the Hart “scandal” represented a marked change in the way the media covers politicians, from which there can be no return — even if, in the Trump era, it often seems like even truly indefensible actions have no consequences.