Film Review: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman’s real-life political drama has big ideas and a strong cast, even if bewigged star Hugh Jackman seems a little miscast as failed presidential contender Gary Hart.

Made back-to-back with JR’s Tully, this is half-intended as a thriller but feels altogether too slack for that, and while there are funny lines (especially from Reitman’s pal J.K. Simmons), it isn’t really a comedy either. No, this is Reitman’s shot at doing a Robert Altman movie – a sort of condensed ‘80s version of Nashville, perhaps – and it doesn’t really work.

In a mostly genuine-looking 1984 we meet Gary Hart (Jackman), who’s just lost the Democratic Presidential nomination and is sitting in a San Francisco hotel room bitterly discussing defeat with his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga from Reitman’s Up In The Air) and others. We then cut to 1987 and find that Gary is running for President and considered the front runner with his progressive views and supposedly considerable charisma. However, Jackman is uneasy throughout and doesn’t seem to know how to play the character, possibly as he met and stayed at the home of the real Hart and therefore maybe doesn’t want to make him look bad, even if Hart is still a womaniser – and a liar.

There’s a small army of supporting characters surrounding him, all dosed up on coffee and junk food, and spouting sometimes improbable dialogue that drips with the sort of deadpan zingers that you’d, of course, have once found in films by the late great Robert Altman. Campaign manager Bill Dixon (Simmons) stands out as he cracks dry jokes at every opportunity, and keeps on making you think that the screenplay is tighter and wittier than it in fact is.

This is also the dawn of the age of seriously tawdry journalism (Matt Bai’s source book is fittingly titled All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid), and although Gary has a few secrets, he nonetheless foolishly claims that he has nothing to hide and, in an impulsive moment, suggests that the press and public “follow him around”. And as he’d recently started an affair with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), whom he met at a party on the unfortunately-named yacht ‘Monkey Business’, he was soon caught by a trio of Miami Herald journos who took him up on his offer.

There’s a lot of heavy-handed arguing about ethics by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (this time played by Alfred Molina), and Kevin Pollak is effectively spiky as Miami Herald editor Bob Martindale, even if the character is completely and problematically fictional. Poor Donna is also assured that she’ll not be attacked by the press (who once would have either stayed quiet about politicians’ dalliances or kept the women out of it), but eventually she’s pretty much assaulted by an army of photographers in a sensationalistic free-for-all.

Reitman’s technique here is so deliberately Robert-Altman-esque that it’s distracting, as characters talk with the camera stalking them, overlapping (and sometimes inaudible) conversations take place as we restlessly move through milling crowds unsure of whom we’re listening to, and complicated dialogue scenes involve multiple competitive speakers. Some of this is brilliantly done, but it doesn’t add a great deal to the drama, especially as, in the end, Hart was simply one man who got caught after one fling and paid a very high price.

It almost makes you nostalgic for such naïve times, particularly when you think about the actual president who came later and lied to the world about the sexual favours he enjoyed in the Oval Office, or that later president who, secret dossier or not, has weathered a long list of scandals that must leave also-rans like Hart in disbelief.

The Front Runner (M) is in cinemas from January 17

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