'The Front Runner': Film Review | Telluride 2018

A lively but superficial chronicle of a politician's freefall.

Hugh Jackman portrays disgraced presidential candidate Gary Hart in Jason Reitman's latest film, co-starring Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons.

Donald Trump is definitely an unseen presence at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Documentaries about another embattled president’s undoing during Watergate and the threat to reverse Roe v. Wade are generating buzz, and Sebastian Silva’s film about the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico also has clear political overtones.

And then there is Jason Reitman’s movie about Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, which was roaring along until it was scuttled by reports of the candidate’s sexual misconduct. What a difference a few decades make! The Front Runner encourages audiences to contemplate huge changes in attitudes about politicians’ sexual dalliances. Rumors about the affairs of FDR, JFK, LBJ and even Eisenhower were kept muzzled and never interfered with these men’s successful campaigns. But that changed when reporters from The Miami Herald got wind of Hart’s extra-marital dalliance with Donna Rice, and the rest of the media quickly succumbed to the feeding frenzy.

This film, adapted from Matt Bai’s book about the Hart campaign, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, is both provocative and somewhat disappointing. Yet the timeliness of the subject and Hugh Jackman’s commanding performance as Hart should generate healthy box office.

The Front Runner benefits from tight, propulsive storytelling; even at a late-night screening in Telluride, the audience was clearly riveted. After a brief prologue about Hart’s failed 1984 campaign, the pic (scripted by Reitman, Bai and Jay Carson) jumps into the launch of his 1988 campaign, where he was quickly labeled the front-runner. Smooth and intelligent, he soon became a darling of the media. But he had been plagued by rumors of womanizing, and his meeting with Rice on a boat quickly led to an explosion of tabloid reporting.

Although the film spends time on Hart’s relationship with his wife (superbly played by Vera Farmiga) and his daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), it devotes as much time to his campaign staff and to the reporters swirling around him. Reitman has said that he was influenced by the Michael Ritchie-Robert Redford movie The Candidate (1972), wanting to immerse us in the unglamorous day-to-day routines of a political campaign.

In a sense, The Front Runner is more of an ensemble movie than a Hugh Jackman starring vehicle, and it does a fine job of giving texture to the daily challenges of strategy and crisis management. The cast is huge, and yet thanks to sharp writing and swift editing by Stefan Grube, most of the individual characters have a chance to make an impression. Reitman veteran J.K. Simmons contributes another splendid turn as the campaign manager devoted to his candidate but also concerned about the effect of Hart’s mistakes on all the dedicated staff members.

The reporters foraging around Hart and Rice also register vividly. Kevin Pollak has a neat cameo as the pugnacious editor defending his somewhat sleazy reporters, and there is a strong performance by Mamoudou Athie as a more principled reporter for The Washington Post. A clever scene invented by the writers shows Hart calming the reporter’s jitters during a bumpy flight. The bond between them makes the reporter’s later sense of betrayal more piercing.

All of these touches give the movie detail, but at the expense of an in-depth examination of the central character. The pic never quite clarifies its own attitude toward Hart. It simply doesn’t spend enough time with him to allow the audience to decide whether he was a truly transformative politician undone by tabloid reporters or just another slick operator. This robs the film of a tragic dimension that it might have achieved.

Nevertheless, given the limitations of the role, Jackman delivers one of his finest performances. He allows us to see the character’s charisma and essential decency, along with a certain solipsism that has undone many leaders. When Hart begins to realize what is at stake, he asks his wife, “Are you leaving me?” and that line, subtly conveying both shame and fear, may be one of the most effective lines that Jackman has ever delivered. Farmiga captures the strength along with the hurt of a woman subject to the most extreme form of public humiliation. The film also extends sympathy to Rice, played by Sara Paxton, though her role isn’t as well written as some of the others.

The theme of The Front Runner seems to be that Hart opened the floodgates to the tabloid press and became a kind of martyr to the media’s sudden eagerness to flay politicians’ sexual misdeeds. By the time Bill Clinton and Trump came along, these scandals had become so routine that these men managed to emerge relatively unscathed from far more salacious revelations. But the film would have had a stronger impact if it had convinced us that Hart, who was destroyed by a prying press, had the potential for greatness that his successors never matched.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Kaitlyn Dever, Kevin Pollak, Mamoudou Athle, Alex Karpovsky, Tommy Dewey
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Matt Bai, Jay Carson, Jason Reitman, based on the book
All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai
Producers: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Aaron L. Gilbert
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Steve Saklad
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Stefan Grube
Music: Rob Simonsen
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Rated R, 113 minutes