In these days of 24-hour, nonstop news coverage in which the current president is accused of having sex with a porn star and the world is treated to her description of his genitalia, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when politicians thought they could get away with any sexual peccadillo they wished. The new movie “The Front Runner” takes us back to the turning point at which politicians could no longer get away with having a zipper problem: the full-on meltdown of Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1988.
Hart was considered to be unstoppable that year, despite having lost the 1984 nomination to Walter Mondale. The handsome Colorado senator was seen as a brilliant policy wonk. But, as depicted by Hugh Jackman in this film, he was also arrogant to his staff, condescending about the campaign process and the press, and an outright jerk to his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga).
In other words, it’s hard to believe he ever was the frontrunner in the first place, considering the fact that he apparently lacked any form of empathy or congeniality toward anyone other than the random women he’d spent his marriage chasing. But that complete lack of personality and the hubris involved in thinking that he could run a campaign while dodging barbecues with voters and questions about his frequent marital separations shows just how much campaigns have changed in just three decades.
The film opens with Hart’s concession call to Mondale in 1984 before leaping into his attempt to run again in four years later. From the get-go, he’s clashing with his campaign staff — particularly over his insistence on forcing hordes of reporters to walk up a mountain in Colorado so he could have a nice backdrop as opposed to a traditional ballroom rally for his campaign launch announcement.
After just a week on the campaign trail, Hart feels the need to party on a yacht in Miami while in route to a weekend in Bimini, during which he meets a pretty young blonde named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) . Director/co-writer Jason Reitman (“Thank You For Smoking,” “Up in the Air”) makes an intriguing choice in zooming far out into the ocean as they leave the crowd onboard and disappear on their own, leaving viewers to speculate what if anything happened between them.
Shortly after, a fellow female passenger on the yacht and friend of Donna’s calls a Miami Herald reporter with the story of Hart hooking up with Rice onboard the yacht. But since the woman is afraid to give her name and has no photographic evidence to offer, the reporter is reluctant to go after the story until a surprising new detail catches his attention and he and his editor engage in a Washington DC stakeout of Hart’s home.
This stakeout by the Herald reporters and subsequent confrontation with Hart seems outrageous when presented in stark close-up terms to viewers, even as such tactics have become the norm today in covering both Hollywood and Washington scandals. Contrasted with Hart’s questionably close friendship with a young male Washington Post reporter who is reluctant to wallow in the mud for a story, “The Front Runner” sets up numerous ethical conflicts that are undeniably intriguing.
Exploring the tangled open marriage of Hart and his treatment of other women, the question of whether a candidate’s personal lack of morals renders him an ineffective leader, and how much right public figures have to privacy when running for or holding office, this is a film with a lot on its mind. The problem Is that it forgets to be entertaining.
There’s no one to root for in this film, as nearly every character in it is unsympathetic. Hart is an all-around jerk, his staff goes along with his arrogant belief that he owes the public nothing about his personal life, his wife is a doormat and the reporters are realizing that they’re starting a dangerous descent into modern-day mudslinging. Strangely, Donna Rice and senior female campaign worker Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) are the only people in the whole sordid mess who are given a chance to convey vulnerable emotion.
One can only wonder why Jackman even wanted such a thankless role in the first place. At a time when the public is burned out on political divisiveness and media oversaturation, the last thing moviegoers are likely going to want is two hours of film showing them how we got to such a national low point.
Reitman directs it all with a dispassionate documentary tone that keeps the events matter-of-fact, with minimal music until the one fun segment involving the Miami reporters’ stalking of Rice and Hart causes the film to briefly perk up. Hitting theaters on Election Day might have seemed like a clever idea for Sony Pictures, but “The Front Runner” is almost certain to be an also-ran in the box office and awards season derbies.
“The Front Runner” Grade: D for Dull