In 1988, Gary Hart was the front runner for the presidency in America. Directed by Jason Reitman and starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga and JK Simmons, The Front Runner homes in on the final three weeks of his campaign.
The film is based upon Matt Bai’s All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid’, recounting the shift in politics that has changed elections ever since. Hart was young at 46 years old with great hair and attractive enough that he could be played by Hugh Jackman. Reitman builds the intensity, busyness and chaos that surrounds the US election process until the wheels come off and Gary Hart’s presidential campaign is forced to come to a close due to his extramarital affair.
Beginning with an impressive one-shot at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Hart concedes defeat. He is high above the circus below as staffers mingle between each other and step on each other’s feet. His success, he believes, is secured as they are now known: “the world changes when young people give a damn” he says. He knows he’ll be back and flashing-forward, it is 1988 and he is “the front runner” and we’re reminded that “a lot can happen in three weeks”. Bill (JK Simmons) is reminding his volunteers that they are part of something big and their families may miss them, but it will be worth it. His campaigners are amazed at how Gary manages to succinctly and efficiently answer questions with such confidence and swagger. The Washington Post, with Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) in charge and AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) running alongside Hart’s campaign, are aware of the infidelities of politicians but as their wives look the other way, however uncomfortable, they have little reason to pursue these stories. When a phone call to the Miami Herald draws the attention of the press to a blond young woman who spent a boat trip intimately close with Hart, the coverage begins to change. While Hart is convinced his private life is of no concern to the voting public, the press begin to feel differently.
In the era of Trump, and his multiple affairs, marriages and the locker room talk he happily partakes in, Gary Hart is hardly an example of the worst man in politics – but he is flawed. The affair at the centre is a catalyst for our access to understand and consider the rights of the media and what is, and should be, in the public interest. Donna (Sara Paxton), the woman in the middle of the scandal, is rightfully acknowledged as Hart also has a responsibility to her that he clearly takes too lightly. If he is the President and can’t treat a woman with respect, should he be president at all? There’s a generational difference too, where journalists used to be asked by Presidents for the “courtesy” of turning a blind eye to the women who wander into their hotel room, we’re told. In 1988, such courtesy has been lost and a more-than-perfect figure has to emerge to even make it to the primaries. Then we reach 2018 and all the integrity has vanished and merely the balls, and bullying tactics of Trump are what propels politicians forward.
Reitman refuses to ignore the hypocrisies Hart has committed, despite the desire so many had for him to win. While spouting about integrity and transparency (telling a humble journalist to “follow” him when asked about his marriage), Hart is also keen for his privacy to remain intact. Reitman has a tough job of making this story exciting and engaging but he more than manages it. The Front Runner harks back to a simpler time when a political scandal, such as this, would bring a candidate down (if only it was possible in 2016) but it also reminds us that there are concerns in the behaviour Hart exhibited. The Weiner documentary from 2016 tackled a very similar conflict and the private behaviour of Anthony Weiner clearly impacted on his judgment and character (something that continued after the documentary was released).
Crucially, it’s fun and accessible with Hugh Jackman and the main players on top form while the supporting actors, such as Bill Burr, Ari Graynor and Molly Ephraim, ensure that even minor roles are meaty and memorable. Thought-provoking, intelligent and a thrilling political drama, The Front Runner is one worth watching this awards season.
This was originally published as London Film Festival coverage for Culturefly.co.uk, in October 2018.