How much can we demand of our public figures? How much of their private life falls under the public’s right to know? These are the essential questions at the centre of Jason Reitman‘s The Front Runner. In it Hugh Jackman portrays former US Senator and Presidential hopeful, Gary Hart, as he grapples with just those issues, while a personal scandal threatens to undermine his bid for The White House.
After a prologue in which we see Hart concede the Democratic nomination for the 1984 Presidential race to Walter Mondale (who went on to be beaten soundly by Ronald Reagan that November), we move on to the events of the 1988 campaign. Somewhat misleadingly, an on-screen graphic announces that we are “four years later”. That this is misleading speaks to an essential problem with the whole raison d-etre of The Front Runner, but more on that later…
The meat of the film deals with the opening three weeks of Hart’s campaign as he is lauded as the favourite for the Democrat nomination. In time we see Hart flirt with a young lady at a party on a boat then, in the midst of a generally strong opening to his campaign, the press around Hart are tipped off that the candidate is having an affair. This leads to The Miami Herald camping outside his house, until they get the [somewhat circumstantial] evidence they need to break their story.
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In the themes of privacy and the right of public figures to make private mistakes (and to keep those mistakes private), there are echoes, in The Front Runner, of 2000’s The Contender, the outstanding Joan Allen film about the attempt to nominate a new Vice-President, against a backdrop of rumours of her sexual past in college coming to the attention of the press. The difference is that The Contender was dealing with a woman in her early-40s confronting prurient gossip about events that may or may not have taken place when she was circa. 18-years-old. That film was able to skewer the argument of the public interest so effectively, as it was truly hard to see the relevance of the in-film story, beyond the characters’ need to sell newspapers, and political opponents’ wish to make hay from the situation.
In The Front Runner, Hart is arguing the irrelevance of events taking place during his current campaign. On the one-hand this is more interesting, as it disables the ability of the character to argue that those events – if they even happened – are just “not who I am now”; but they also lead to difficulty in presenting anything resembling a character arc. Gary Hart starts the process intransigent and unwilling to talk about any facet of his private life, and he ends the film in the exact same mind-set. What came off as strong and slightly cavalier in its sheer nerve from Joan Allen, here comes off as stubborn, self-defeating, and leaves the character distant and in a kind of stasis. This impedes effective storytelling, however accurate it may be to the facts. A purely fictionalised version of this film would likely have seen some accommodation and compromise between candidate and press.
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Leading to the point that Gary Hart should have known the World into which he was pitching himself as a candidate: but that World is no longer our World. The film does an excellent job of portraying an era that may turn out to have been a historical anomaly. At one point in the film Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, here portrayed by Alfred Molina (and recently in The Post by Tom Hanks), tells a story of how, during his candidacy in 1964, Lyndon Johnson told the press, privately, that they would be seeing a lot of women coming and going from his hotel room, and that he expected the press to offer him the same discretion that they had offered JFK. The events of this film are less than a quarter of a century from that 1964 race, and Gary Hart would have been in his late-20s during that contest. The films sells, very well, that there was a whole generation of newscasters, journalists and politicians being overtaken by a change in public tastes and morality towards the behaviour of public figures. As with every generation, as it ages, it is understandable that it falls behind the times.
This does raise the question of the timeliness of The Front Runner. Why now? The events of the last Presidential Election, along with the fact we know that, even in the UK, politicians now rarely leave their jobs as a result of extramarital affairs. The public, at least at our current point in history, appear to accept that, as long as there is no conflict with their role, public figures will make these kinds of private choices. In that regard, The Front Runner would seem to be better suited to production and release at a time closer to the events of the film. What discussion this film may have caused – and how it may have captured the public’s attention – had it been made around the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment: when conversation about the line between public and private, the role of morality in public life truly raged.
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If that is the issue with the topic, then what about Gary Hart himself? The issue with “four years later” – the graphic after he lost to Mondale – is that it would pitch us into the middle of 1988, as the 1984 Democratic Convention, nominating Mondale, took place in mid-July of that year. So, it is very easy to think we are around four months from the 1988 Presidential Election. What a story, so close to the election, the front runner forced out of the race. A man who could beat George HW Bush and prevent three consecutive Republican victories. The inference would be, then, that there would have been no Bill Clinton Presidency – and history thereafter would look very different. The problem is that the events this film is portraying take place in May 1987, a full 18 months before Bush’s election.
The term ‘front runner’ is, at that stage, almost meaningless. There is little evidence that Hart was a lock for the nomination, as it was simply too early: much less that he would have gone on to do better than eventual nominee Michael Dukakis did against Bush the following year. So, we are talking about someone who was briefly in the race for President (he did re-join later in the year – also briefly), long before true form for that race could be established. All against the backdrop of a film examining a public trait that, as we enter 2019, simply isn’t there any longer. The public still have an almost rabid interest in the private life of public figures, but it is no longer propped up by a zealous morality. Time will tell whether that trend is permanent.
Performances in this film are all excellent. Whilst nothing like Hart in build, voice or bearing, Jackman essays the character as internal and private, and is effective in portraying both outrage at the press, and confusion as to how far the goalposts on what represents fair game have moved. Vera Farmiga, as his wife, Lee, gives her usual strong, half-tough-half-vulnerable, somewhat likeable, somewhat scary performance. All members of press and campaign – particularly JK Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon – are portrayed as fully and humanly as they can give the limited screen time such a packed cast necessitates. The score moves deftly between almost caper-ish and foreboding – leaving it unclear where the emphasis is meant to be on comedy or drama here. Cinematography is well-designed, with the sheer pressure a candidate is under from scores of press and public crushing in on them at all times being made viscerally clear.
The Front Runner would have been a better, more timely film had it been made somewhere near the end of the 1990s. Public mores do change over time, however, so it may well be that the themes of this film will speak more fully to a future generation. In isolation, the film does a more than competent job with an interesting subject.