The political world can change quickly. With news outlets covering candidates and public officials throughout the day, a leader at the top can fall very quickly. That was even the case in 1988.
That’s the year that Colorado Senator Gary Hart was seen as the leader of the pack in the Democratic presidential primary.
The new drama The Front Runner focuses on a brief three-week period during Hart’s presidential campaign, a period that arguably redefined political coverage.
The movie starts in 1984 as Hart (played admirably by Hugh Jackman) finishes second in the Iowa caucuses. His star is rising and he knows that Walter Mondale, the Democrat’s eventual presidential nominee, will eventually lose to President Ronald Reagan. He also knows that there will be an opening for a fresh face in 1988.
Four years later, Hart leads the primary polls and comes out on top in potential matchups with Vice Presidential George H. W. Bush. However, the Miami Herald receives a tip about the possibility of Hart having an affair. Newspaper reporters stake out Hart’s townhouse. Their reporting on Hart’s potential relationship with Donna Rice changes the campaign and the political landscape.
In the new film, director Jason Reitman focuses intently on this campaign, at times neglecting the world around it. At points, it feels like the campaign itself exists in a vacuum — without opponents or allies. Adapted from the book All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai, the movie captures Hart as he struggles to survive the political fallout.
The candidate is always the focus here, even when the feature depicts newspaper writers discussing the affair. The discussion is always about Hart, the presidential candidate. In fact, Gary’s wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) spends much of the feature away from her husband, secluded from the campaign and her husband. It’s this distance that keeps the emotional toll of the alleged affair less realized on a personal level. The film is more enamored with the political story here.
The feature tells its story about the fallout from this potential affair but the screenwriters are always more focused on the scandal itself. Not the characters themselves.
Portrayed by the underrated Jackman, Hart comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful candidate, who operates above the journalists asking these questions. He’s a policy wonk, the feature suggests, who doesn’t understand how his personal shortcomings might turn off potential voters.
It’s oftentimes tough to empathize with his holier-than-thou attitude, which he exhibits even in front of his staff who stick by him.
That being said, there are plenty of small moments here that truly enrich this story. For instance, there’s an intriguing subplot about campaign aide Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) bonding with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), Hart’s alleged mistress. Oftentimes, it’s easier to forget about private citizens like Rice, who become embroiled in political scandals. Here, Rice is portrayed as an educated woman who found herself in the headlines. She’s overcome by the stories leaked about her and in one heartbreaking scene here, she’s forced to confront the cameras by herself, a powerful juxtaposition to Hart talking to the press surrounded by aides and advisors.
Additionally, the feature makes some thoughtful historical points. Like in Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), there are conversations here about the friendships once shared between members of the press and politicians. In this new film, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) talks about how reporters once looked the other way when politicians had affairs. It was just the way it was, he suggests. It’s also interesting to note that esteemed Washington Post reporter Bob Wodward used to let Gary Hart stay over his house.
The relationships between the press and politicians hasn’t always been as antagonistic as it is today and The Front Runner deserves credit for noting that even as it tells its own unique story.
The Front Runner will likely appeal to political viewers but it lacks the emotional depth that would make this story stand out for other audiences. In focusing on the beginning of a new type of political coverage, the feature oftentimes neglects to build three-dimensional characters.
In the film, Hart is presented as a man focused on the big picture who loses sight of other aspects of his story. The movie sadly commits the same sin, oftentimes forgetting about the personal stakes involved in this scandal.
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