If The Front Runner is any indication, Jason Reitman’s directorial ambition is to be a low-rent Robert Altman. From the opening sequence, we get elaborately choreographed sequences with a lot of low-volume chit chat, overlapping dialogue that is ultimately without much substance.
In this case, it begins with Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) conceding his loss of the party nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The moment comes after the camera pans through media vans and new anchors and packed crowds with political signs outside hotels, then tips up to the window to the room housing the Hart Campaign. This whole pre-credits sequence ends with a similar shot of campaign staff drinking away their disappointment at a bar, which is where Hart declares that winning wasn’t “what it was about.” What was it about, then? “Now they know who we are.”
Jump four years later to the 1988 election campaign, and The Front Runner depicts the three weeks immediately preceding Hart dropping out of the race. We know it’s three weeks because the title card says it specifically: Hart is the Democratic front runner by a large margin, but, “A lot can happen in three weeks.”
In the end, I rather wish this movie did a better job at showing us who the people in it were. Instead, it is far more concerned with the procedural depiction of how the story of Hart’s infidelity made it into the press. There is particular focus on The Miami Herald (with staff played by Kevin Pollack and Bill Burr) and The Washington Post (with an editor played by Alfred Molina), and this is really where The Front Runner stumbles.
This is a movie, more than anything, about how the downfall of Gary Hart marked the end of privacy for politicians in mainstream media. Presumably whether this was the definitive turning point could be debated. The disingenuous thing about The Front Runner is how it depicts journalists who are, to a person, each of them conflicted about the moral dubiousness of what they are doing. Not one reporter here is unscrupulous about this kind of work, which is patently ridiculous. Our country in 2018 being run by individuals who attack a vital free press is one thing; depicting all journalists as somehow being forced to compromise an inherent nobility is not a whole lot better.
Then there is the couple at the center of it, Gary Hart and his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga, elevating the material with her performance as always). Reitman observes his characters with a consistent detachment, offering a macro view of the media circus as well as the campaign chaos hardly kept under control by a campaign manager played by J.K. Simmons. He never truly gets into the heart of these people, rather settling for a surface reflection of how they handle the media crisis. There is very little in the way of character development.
Granted, Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart is a guarded man, that being a big part of his downfall. It’s easy in retrospect to declare that there’s no reason to give a shit about what a politician does with his private life, especially after the likes of Anthony Weiner or, god help us all, the Trump Era. Gary Hart’s problems look positively quaint by comparison. Maybe he simply should have learned to be as nakedly shameless as the politicians we have today. On the other hand, I still found it difficult to feel any sympathy for him. He knew very well what world he lived in in 1988, and this was what being a conniving liar got him.
But, okay, Jason Reitman clearly isn’t making any attempt to make the man sympathetic anyway. The Front Runner’s purpose is to show us how we got to where we are today, with Hart’s story as the starting point. But if that’s the only purpose, it might as well have been a documentary. The Front Runner succeeds as an intermittently engaging procedural about media interference, but with a couple exceptional scenes, it fails as a drama.