starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina
written by Matt Bai & Jay Carson & Jason Reitman
directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw In 1988, Gary Hart, the democratic former senator from my home state of Colorado, was the front runner for the Presidency of the United States. About a week before the primary, which would have cemented his ascendancy to a post seemingly all but preordained, this guy--classically handsome, tall, masculine, progressive--did what powerful men in privileged positions sometimes do: he slept with a young woman who wanted a job with his campaign. That's a problem, but the problem is he dared the WASHINGTON POST to follow him; he touted his ethics and morals as a foundational plank to his platform, and when the MIAMI HERALD took him up on his dare, they discovered that he was maybe a serial philanderer who in those last halcyon days before the Internet, hadn't learned the voracious appetite the public has for a good, sleazy story concerning the tragic fall of kings. It's hardly ever the crime--it's almost always the cover-up. And in 1988, Jason Reitman's The Front Runner says, politicians weren't very good at the cover-up. Largely because the press was complicit in helping politicians, athletes, and other powerful men in powerful spheres keep sexual dalliances and abuses quiet. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, after all.
So it's not the powerful man's fault for taking advantage of their situation--and it's not the newspapers' for reporting on it--but the public's for caring. Except the insinuation is that the public would always have cared about this stuff if only the papers had reported it. The blame, then, for the stunning demise of Gary Hart's career over a sex scandal is now the papers'. Late in the game, Hart's press secretary Kevin Sweeney (a particularly one-note Chris Coy, though, to be fair, everyone is one-note in this trainwreck) screams at Parker, telling him the WASHINGTON POST is not the NATIONAL ENQUIRER. "Congratulations. Fifty cents at the checkout lane." The actual reporter for the WASHINGTON POST who told the campaign it had pictures is a man named Paul Taylor. Later, at an infamous press conference this movie misrepresents, bowdlerizes, and obfuscates in horrific ways, it is Parker and not, as in real life, Taylor who asks Hart the pivotal, campaign-ending questions: first, whether Hart considered adultery amoral, and then whether he had ever committed adultery. The question, and it's a good one, is why Taylor is not only not represented in the film, but in fact replaced by the fictional A.J. Parker. Taylor, for the record, is a white guy who vaguely resembles Joe Piscopo from that era. Athie is a handsome, young, bookish-seeming black man who has been established as green and nervous and, in an especially insulting sequence, having a panic attack on an airplane so that Hart can talk him down like a farmer stroking the flank of skittish livestock. Anyway, draw your own conclusions.
In the introduction to The Front Runner's premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Reitman got up on stage and said the screenplay was written by two really smart and qualified individuals, plus the son of the guy who directed Ghostbusters. This is his play at self-deprecation and it wears as loosely and unconvincingly as you might imagine. It's the falsest kind of modesty and it's interesting to trainspot all the moments in the film that are obviously the product of a bad gag writer unable to read the room. Too many scenes end with flat one-liners and inappropriate rimshots. At one point, Reitman resorts to having poor Donna Rice (Sarah Paxton) declare that she wanted to work for Sen. Hart because she liked "his positions." Funny, right? This blonde bimbo likes the good senator's positions. It is to laugh, and so campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) laughs. Then there's the serious moment where Reitman and team bring it back and Rice says that she spent her whole life going to school (she was a Phi Beta Kappa, she declares) so that men would stop looking at her the way Bill was looking at her right then. Later, she repeats the complaint to staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) that since she was a model, you know, omigod right, men look at her without seeing her inner magna cum laude. I would be more convinced by the picture's commitment to resuscitating Rice's reputation had it not introduced her with essentially a long tracking shot of her ass. I would believe it more if it didn't have Kelly respond with a "heh, I don't have that problem," inviting us to laugh at either her comparative ugliness or that actress Ephraim is beautiful and this is a contrivance in movies like this that does genuine social damage. I would even give it a pass had the film shown that during the press conference they radically fictionalize that Hart answered a series of questions about Rice and offered a public apology to ruining, for a while at least, her life.
In other words, The Front Runner re-victimizes Rice by painting her as intensely naive--in the midst of the fallout, she asks if she still has a chance at working with the campaign--and essentially silly, and then casts her away in exactly the same way that Hart is portrayed as having done. It stinks of a trio of men not understanding that the better film would have been about Donna Rice. Hart's fall is a key moment in my early political consciousness. I was fifteen when it all went down and I was disappointed by his stupidity and arrogance. He was the great hope. There was no way Bush Sr. would have beaten him and the state of our world would be much different today had he won. Here's the issue, whatever my political leanings: The Front Runner is dangerous garbage, badly thought-through and clumsily executed. It wants to appear woke, so it gives women arid, contrived speeches and fabricates a black cub reporter out of whole cloth, although it's careful to make him as timid and declining as a woodland faun. Doing either is problematic, of course, but proceeding to vilify the press while making a black kid the most-developed representative of the press only compounds what is frankly a horrific lack of judgment. Like most people trying to be socially aware who do not have the best intentions, it ends up as a dog whistle for the delight of the deplorable. Hart says a few times in the film that the great danger of the press reporting on him cheating on his wife is that the best people will no longer wish to run for public office, for fear their personal lives will be excavated and the skeletons put on display. My rejoinder to that is the Pollyannaish belief that the best people do not cheat on their wives.
The Front Runner says that the press is the enemy, that boys will be boys, that women are objects at their best and irritants at their worst. Jackman plays Hart like a deer caught in the headlights or a fish hooked on a line. His eyes bug, he makes like Jean Valjean speechifying about bread, and then in that last press conference, he freezes like a toad about to be gigged when in real life, Hart never once lost his composure to anything near that extent. Hart is a professional politician. The Front Runner even offers a prologue confirming as much when he lost the Democratic nomination in 1984 to Walter Mondale but declares resolutely that now they know who he is and they have four years to prepare for their moment. Various aides marvel at how natural and off-the-cuff a speaker he is. Choosing to have him flail at the end of a sharp stick is not just inaccurate, it's structurally bizarre. Imagine the Gary Hart film that positions him not as the innocent victim of a new fad, but one of the first men held to account for eons of normalized abuse.
The big question is whether it matters to people that someone as morally vile and essentially evil as, let's say, Donald Trump, is the President of the United States. And whether it matters that newspapers can report that free of vilification, which has recently started to turn deadly. And whether married men should be expected not to use their power to sleep with a lot of interns and job-seekers while talking loudly about morality and character. The Front Runner isn't sure about any of it. It's not intellectually neutral (as if objectivity were anything but a dishonest rhetorical gambit anyhow), it's confused. Hart deserves his fall, his long-suffering wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) tells him. He deserves his pain, but also she's been with him for thirty years and she's not going to leave him now. He deserves to feel all of it, but really what a shame that this good man was undone by something so silly as this little dalliance. This little dalliance that showed Hart to be the worst kind of hypocrite, arrogant to the point of hubrical, and ultimately unfit for the highest office in the land. This little dalliance that has cemented Donna Rice in the popular memory as a bimbo sitting on Hart's lap, something this film is about to do again--a woman who is currently the CEO of an Internet safety organization and has been outspoken about her own (non-Hart) rape. Credit The Front Runner for wading into these deep waters of purity-testing and trolls. Should probably have learned how to swim first.