Film Review – The Front Runner
The Front Runner
There are two stories in The Front Runner (2018), and I’m not so sure either one is all that effective. The first involves Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who in 1988 ran for President and was the favorite to win. However, what looked like surefire victory turned into disaster when allegations over an extramarital affair forced him to drop out of the race. The second story involves how news outlets chased the scandal without doing proper fact checking. While the film – directed by Jason Reitman and cowritten by Reitman, Jay Carson and Matt Bai (adapting Bai’s book) – is timely, it doesn’t go far enough in examining both sides. It has the feel of something important but ends up not saying much at all.
Extramarital affairs and sexual exploits of high-ranking officials has unfortunately been a staple of American politics. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Anthony Wiener, and of course Donald Trump, who was caught bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. Power and opportunity can expose the weaknesses of some, and in a workplace where your every decision, every action, and every word spoken is picked apart and judged by the American people, the darker tendencies of a person can come to light in extreme and very public ways.
A big question comes out of this: is it our business to know what goes on in the bedroom of these people? Should the choices a person makes in the privacy of their home dictate how they are to be perceived by others? In The Front Runner, Hart (Hugh Jackman) refuses to acknowledge the allegations when they first break, proclaiming that voters are more interested in his policies than in his sexual proclivities. He might have a point. After the story about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was uncovered, Clinton’s approval ratings actually improved. And even though Donald Trump made very lewd and degrading comments about women, he was still elected to office. But just because Hart makes a good point doesn’t absolve him from the fact that he cheated on his wife (Vera Farmiga). He may be a charismatic personality and might have good ideas about the country, but that doesn’t change the possibility that he might be a terrible human being.
This alone would make for an interesting character study, but Reitman and his team decide to take a left turn and examine the press and their role in Hart’s downfall. The narrative takes ample opportunity putting the spotlight on the media and their increasing willingness to push ethical boundaries. In one sequence, two reporters (Steve Zissis, Bill Burr) stake out in front of Hart’s home, hoping to catch him with his mistress in a “gotcha” type of situation. They take hidden pictures of Hart with random people and rush them to print without confirming who they are. This could be considered tabloid journalism and an invasion of one’s privacy. But in a time where competition was fierce, it seems only inevitable that outlets would dive into the rumor and sleaze. Even as his campaign appears to be coming to an end, Hart holds fast in his insistence to blame the press for their questionable practices in discovering this story.
That’s where The Front Runner falters. While Reitman’s direction recreates this setting with a slick, polished look, and while the performances are all very good (Jackman is excellent as Hart), the messaging gets lost between these two opposing forces. Are we to blame the news organizations for running these stories too quickly, not focusing on “telling the truth” but rather “telling it first?” Or are we supposed to look at this man who appeared to have everything going for him only to squander it away because of his inability to keep his sexual cravings in check? We come away wondering what exactly the production was trying to say about either side.
And what about the women? There are two female characters that do not get the attention they deserve. The first is Hart’s wife, Lee (Farmiga) who has to bear the embarrassment of having a husband who does not respect her. Farmiga is very good at portraying the hurt, anger, and confusion that comes with being in that position, and yet the film does not dig deeper into this. Whenever a scandal like this happens, one of the saddest moments is having to watch a wife stand coldly next to her husband as they face the public, supporting a person who clearly did not support them. An ending title card explains that Lee and Gary are married to this day, but we never get a hint as to why.
The other person is Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the woman with whom Hart was having the affair. What happened to Rice was unfair. This is an intelligent, educated person who found herself at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person, and because of that she will forever have to live with the burden of being “the other woman.” What happened to her? Where did she go? How did she move on from this episode? We never learn any of this. Just as the public disregarded her, the film seems to forget about Rice just as quickly.
I’m sure everyone involved with The Front Runner came in with the best intentions, but in a political story such as this, the focus must be laser sharp. The perspective is too hazy here, waffling between what it’s trying to get at. Reitman has been better (just look at his other work from this year, Tully) and I’m sure he’ll get back to form sooner than later – let’s just consider this a mild speed bump along the way.