There’s an irony to one of the opening lines of The Front Runner. After introducing the audience to Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), the 1988 Democratic hopeful and presidential frontrunner, an omniscient Kyron tells us, “a lot can happen in three weeks.” Obviously, in today’s current political climate a lot can happen in even three hours, but there’s a cheekiness to the line. Portrayed as the start of the modern media and political landscape as we know it, Director Jason Reitman uses The Front Runner as a mirror to our current political choices and climate, making us question our own political practices.
Written by Matt Bai and Jay Carson, as well as director Reitman, the biopic tells the story of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential run, which ended in scandal before he was even the Democratic nominee after it was discovered he was having an affair. He is self-assured, if not callous, focusing on the issues and not on his personal life. His missteps seem obvious now, do not have an affair while running for president unless you want the press to find out. What the film captures really well is the understanding that this scandal changed American reporting and campaigning. The press’s job changed from holding a candidate’s policies and corruption accountable, but a candidate’s private life as well.
Jackman captures the arrogance of a man surprised by the consequences of his actions with a masculine brilliance. His Hart teeters between charming likability and angry ignorant entitlement. This isn’t a story of how a candidate was slighted but how a candidate’s downfall resulted from their own ignorance amidst a changing media landscape.
Like the real story it emulates, there are too many players involved in this farce. There are so many characters, that maybe 30% percent of them could be identified by their character names. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some of the actors, like the great Alfred Molina, Bill Burr, and Ari Graynor seem underused. Such a large ensemble cast does not let the audience attach to any character emotionally, except some of the women at the heart of the Hart scandal, the portrayal of the press could have used some of that likability.
The Front Runner’s treatment of women seems revolutionary. If this film was made even five years ago, the dignity and airtime given to its female characters in a story like this seem unlikely. The plot could have easily focused on Hart and his relationship to the male-dominated press during the scandal, but Reitman’s attention on the women to whom this story affected gives the film its humanity. This is no surprise as Reitman is known for his authentic direction of women, especially in his collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody on Juno, Young Adult, and Tully, and applies that thoughtful portrayal to this film.
The film is the most interesting when seen through the eyes of the women affected by the affair. Most of the female focus is on Lee, Hart’s angry and weary wife (Vera Farmiga). However, Donna Price (Sara Paxton), the “blonde bimbo” at the heart of the scandal, is played with naiveté and empathy. She was young, got swept up in Hart’s charisma, but is more than a pretty face fed to the wolves. Reitman humanizes the mistress of a historical figure by giving personality to the face of scandal. Molly Ephraim plays a staffer blindsided by the affair and left to deal with Price after her male coworkers have failed to get Donna’s side of the story. One of the most interesting character arcs of the film, Ephraim portrays Irene’s disillusionment with Hart, with the all too familiar gravitas of a young woman discovering the true colors of her male idol.
The Front Runner asks many more questions than it answers, as it should. The issues raised by the film have not been answered by our society itself, so why should a film do the same? How much should the public know about our leaders’ personal lives? Does the press have the right to expose the inner personal lives of politicians and how far should they go in pursuit of a story? Where does the fallen woman fit into our modern society? These questions are literally being answered under this administration and as history repeats itself, these questions will make the film relevant for ages to come.
Final Grade: B+