Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kaitlyn Dever, Toby Huss, Molly Ephraim, Steve Zissis, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, Kevin Pollack, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Does it matter? That's the question at the center of Jason Reitman's The Front Runner, which details Senator Gary Hart's unsuccessful 1988 Presidential bid. At one point not only a lock for the nod, but seemingly the White House, all of Hart's political ambitions came crashing down in the span of merely three weeks. Young, good-looking, charismatic and full of fresh ideas, his campaign was derailed because he had an ex-marital affair. But that wasn't the story. The real story was that it was the first time anyone bothered to care. The media. The public. His colleagues. For the previous 200 years, politicians got free passes in their private lives, which remained just that: private. Hart's timing was terrible, his ascent having arrived on the precipice of a major sea change in our culture that's carried over into today: when news became entertainment.

Hart felt the wrath when character and trustworthiness in our public figures suddenly became an issue and the press realized they could make bank exposing it. In other words, he really stepped in it and the way he reacted, or rather didn't, circles back to that question of whether a public figure's private business should really matter, and whether that matters when he's a politician seeking the highest office in the land. It's a question we're still wrestling with and one Reitman thoroughly examines here with surprising insight and objectivity.

After losing the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, idealistic, rejuvenated Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) returns four years later, entering the 1988 race, quickly becoming the front runner to earn the nomination that earlier alluded him. With wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) in his corner, Hart seems to be the ideal family values candidate, telling it like it is and promising to put the people and country first. There's only one problem: his marriage. Or more specifically, an affair he's having with a Florida-based model named Donna Shaw (Sara Paxton), whose best friend tips off Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) about their secret excursions.

With Washington Post's A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) also cornering Hart about his extracurricular activities in an interview, the senator becomes defensive as ever, lashing out at anyone daring to bring up his personal life. But he's in trouble, and despite loyal supporters like hard-nosed campaign manager (Bill Dixon) and scheduler Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) telling him otherwise, Hart stubbornly stays the course, even as the media has a field day exposing his transgressions. Unfortunately, the only course he's now headed on would seem to lead toward political infamy and embarassment rather than the White House.

Reitman's casting of Hugh Jackman as the embattled senator is meant to convey something that perhaps another actor in the role wouldn't. Despite what you may have seen or read about Hart or any of the paralells between him and Jackman as far as their likability, charisma, or ability to hold an audience, they're worlds apart. And if we're going strictly on appearance, they actually look nothing alike. The choice is clearly meant to idealize both Hart himself and his campaign, but it works. It's as if the producers asked themselves which actor would make the senator look ten times better than he actually was, which isn't to say he wasn't a strong candidate in reality. But in Jackman's shoes, he manages to seem even better and more trustworthy. How could you not vote for this guy? And that makes his eventual collapse all the more disappointing and symbolic.

While we expect Jackman would excel at playing a baby-kissing, family-oriented man of the people, what he best captures is Hart's hubris. His complete disbelief that anyone would want to talk about  his personal life instead of the issues or the country. He's also personally offended, demanding that what he does on his own time is off limits without exception. In one sense, his idealism is commendable, but it's also becoming increasingly unrealistic, shading him as an entitled egomaniac. It's the push and pull between the two sides of this man's character, or sometimes lack thereof, that make for such a compelling implosion.  His failure to grasp that nothing is off limits anymore and how that leads to his undoing is what makes the picture engaging, despite an opening half hour that lures us into thinking we're watching a dry political docudrama.

One of the best scenes occur between Jackman and J.K. Simmons' as Hart's campaign manager, who attempts to convince him that, morals and fairness aside, the coverage of the scandal is quickly eating away at everything he and his staffers have been working for. Of course, it falls on deaf ears as Hart continually refuses to acknowledge its existence and plows forward, rewriting his speeches while dismissing the allegations so flippantly that it gives a whole new inflexible meaning to the phrase "staying on topic."

There's never a moment of self-reflection, even when being followed and ambushed outside his D.C. residence, camera in his face while questions are being fired. Yet as unlikable as he is and how little remorse he seems to show, Hart still makes a valid point that if we used this criteria to judge our leaders we wouldn't have had a Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, both of whom were serial womanizers in an era where their indiscretions were protected. Why should he be treated any differently? The answer's simple: he's entered a different era.

If Hart has a rough time adjusting to this paradigm shift, the media has just as difficult a time figuring out how to handle it. And it's here where some of the accusations that Reitman didn't dig deep enough or just grazed the surface of the story's implications don't hold water. He takes us inside these newsrooms showing how they struggle and debate the merits of covering this, and how. Some, like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), are all in, while trepidatious Post reporter A.J. Parker's guilt at exposing Hart is pitted against his equally strong moral sense of responsibility as a journalist.

In a cast loaded with valuable utility players, few make as strong an impression as Molly Ephraim as the fictional Irene Kelly, a political handler who now must handle the "other woman" in the scandal, Donna Shaw. In doing this, she realizes that aside from the young woman's naivete and poor judgment, she'll be a casualty. The senator will suffer the political fallout but the scandal will follow her wherever she goes after she's dragged through the mud by the media and Hart's team. She's not as strong as Vera Farmiga's more hardened Lee Hart,  putting on a tough public face to shield herself and daughter Andrea from the humiliation her husband's actions caused, only confirming what she suspected of him all along.

At its core, The Front Runner is a process picture, and while it won't anytime soon be confused with the likes of All The President's Men or Zodiac as far as how deep or skillfully it takes us into the newsroom, it makes for an effective snapshot of a little discussed turning point for American politics and in our culture. The true events dramatized in the former film heavily played into what would eventually take down Gary Hart. Post-Watergate, everyone in the press wanted to be crusaders, and found their perfect vehicle with this candidate, who didn't exactly do himself any favors with his actions, regardless of how much luckier his predecessors may have been. It's one thing to apologize, but it's another entirely to apologize for getting caught.

No comments: