There was a time where I would have followed the directorial works of Jason Reitman to the ends of the earth. Son of the famous Ivan Reitman, Jason carved out his own voice and path through the American independent film industry in the late 2000s and early 2010s with a string of fantastic dramedies that brilliantly examined the human condition and steered through difficult subject matter with aplomb. Thank You For Smoking (his debut), Juno (his breakthrough), Up in the Air (the 2010 Awards Season bridesmaid that appeared to solidify his position), Young Adult (his re-team with Juno scribe Diablo Cody). All these films are still at-least great to this day… but then 2014 happened. In 2014, Reitman released a pair of films – the schmaltzy Stockholm Syndrome weepy Labor Day, and the moronic tech-hysteria ensemble drama Men, Women & Children – which were so godawful that dropping them back-to-back at opposite ends of the year felt tantamount to career suicide. These movies weren’t just regular bad, they were bad enough to make one wonder if Jason Reitman hadn’t just been the recipient of an extreme amount of luck with his prior films that had now run dry.
Reitman wisely disappeared for a few years following those bombs and has tried for a do-over with 2018, also releasing a pair of films at opposite ends of the year. His first, Tully which reunited the Young Adult dream-team of himself, Cody, and star Charlize Theron, was by all accounts excellent (it skipped my cinema and I haven’t had the chance to catch up yet). His second, The Front Runner is decidedly not. Fortunately for those of us still holding out hope for Reitman, it’s not aggressively terrible or bereft of good stuff. But in telling the story of how Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) went from the unassailable front-runner likely guaranteed the White House in the 1988 election to a laughing stock pariah because he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, Reitman and his fellow screenwriters (Jay Carson and Matt Bai whose book the movie is based on) can’t decide on a tone, a target, or a focussed point, instead huffing and puffing in every direction in a way that leaves The Front Runner confused and weirdly out-of-step with the current socio-political landscape.
Fittingly given its subject, the movie starts well enough after the aborted prologue. The opening week of Hart’s candidacy has a very Aaron Sorkin-esque snap to proceedings. All sharp-talking rhythmic exchanges focussed on the nuts-and-bolts interplay between politicians, the starry-eyed volunteers who put their lives on hold to help run the campaign, the ruthless campaign strategists trying to keep proceedings on-rails, and the journalists who need to balance cosying up to their subjects for access with their obligation to hold them accountable for their actions. Hart, meanwhile, is shown to be a gifted orator and progressive liberal thinker – the kind that emphatically refutes the notion that the United States had anything to do with the collapse of the USSR, and proposes to reverse the damaging public school funding cuts the Reagan administration made – that can inspire young voters effortlessly. But his resolute focus on the issues and staunch avoidance of topics pertaining to his personal life slowly reveals an entitled man who wants to be able to have it both ways. To promote progressive caring policies and ask Americans to hold themselves and their elected officials to higher standards… just so long as he is still able to do what, or rather who, he wants. And Jackman is fantastic in the role, pulling off a better P.T. Barnum here than The Greatest Showman allowed him to do.
But as the campaign falls apart, dogged by the sex scandal that would not only bring down Hart’s campaign totally but also normalise the tabloid gossip manner of treating such scandals when reporting on politics in both the US and UK going forward, so too does Reitman’s film. He, Carson and Bai know that they want to impart a message and spread some justified anger, but they just don’t seem to know where to aim their frustrations. Are they angriest at Gary Hart, the great white hope against George Bush who selfishly violated the faith and trust of his supporters and those who stood to benefit the most from his policies by embarrassing himself irreparably and refusing to own up to his actions? Are they angriest at the media for pouncing on the story, depicting the Washington Post and the Miami Herald as overly-cozy Boy’s Clubs willing to turn a blind eye until vultures want to opportunistically scratch a few more column inches for their careers or a candidate they’ve baselessly decided they don’t like comes along? How they turned elections into, as Gary puts it in his closing speech, “athletic contests rather than political debates?”
Are they angriest at the women who entrapped Gary into making decisions his dick couldn’t ignore? That’s an especially troubling avenue to take but, since the film introduces Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) with her face intentionally hidden like a mythical temptress until a few scenes later when she calls up the Miami Herald looking for cash in exchange for her story, it’s one that The Front Runner goes for anyway. But it also wants to call out these entrenched systems of power abuse by giving Donna a few monologues to explain herself and then make A Very Serious Point about the abuse that women who come forward with allegations of sexual impropriety (and much worse) receive from the media and others. But also also maybe the whole thing was a conspiracy by the Bush campaign to honeytrap Hart and absolutely everyone was a fool for playing into their hands, as the bewildering last scene posits?
Reitman’s film is so desperate to say something worthwhile and make a timely point that it thrashes wildly in every direction and ends up saying nothing. I’m not denying that the Gary Hart scandal and its aftermath were more complicated than “maybe Gary should not have had random sex whilst on the campaign trail,” but the way that The Front Runner goes about trying to unpack the controversy ends up (perhaps inadvertently) letting Hart off the hook way too much and blasting all members of the press, even those who expose such things for the greater good of the public knowledge, as disingenuous leeches. Given that The Front Runner arrives in the eras of #MeToo and #FakeNews, and weeks after the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh (and his response to said) failed to stop him from ascending to the highest court position in North America, plus that little Trump-shaped devil lurking in the backs of all our minds when watching films like this… that makes Reitman’s film troublingly reactionary in all the wrong ways. And it’s not even presented all that well, with underwritten female characters (Vera Farmiga is especially wasted as Hart’s beleaguered wife), simplistic points of view, and an eventual dissipation of energy.
The Front Runner is not terrible, not in the way that past Reitman misfires have been indefensibly terrible. But it does bring that attempted comeback to a screeching halt. Why watch this when Weiner still exists and is still brilliant, after all?