The Front Runner
Hugh Jackman plays a real-life presidential candidate caught up in a scandal in this timely political drama.
January 23, 2019
A true tale of scandal on the election trail, The Front Runner is inspired by events from three decades ago. The book that it's based on — non-fiction tome All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid — was published in 2014, while columnist-turned-author Mat Bai started the ball rolling with a profile in 2003. And yet, this is a film blatantly begging to be made in the current political climate. Adultery, cover ups, a media firestorm, and debates about the ethics of news coverage and what's even newsworthy all fill the movie's frames. Sound familiar?
When Gary Hart's (Hugh Jackman) private life makes the headlines, with a young woman (Sara Paxton) who isn't his wife (Vera Farmiga) seen leaving his Washington DC townhouse, the US politician's response is simple. He might be the Democratic party's leading contender for the 1988 presidential nomination, but he believes that what happens behind closed doors is nobody's business. He's the young, handsome, idealistic hotshot with a real chance of mobilising the masses — the beloved midwestern senator with real policies and real momentum. He's about as far away as you can get from sitting American president Ronald Reagan and likely Republican candidate George HW Bush, and he's certain that his professional deeds matter more to voters than his personal peccadillos.
Call Hart naive, call him optimistic or call his judgement incredibly poor; when first asked about his alleged womanising ways, he even dares one Washington Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie) to follow him around. Whichever description you choose, there's one thing that you can definitely call Hart: caught in interesting times. In the thick of the 80s, JFK's rumoured affairs were old news, Bill Clinton's impeachment was still to come, and everything that Donald Trump has brought to the presidency couldn't have been dreamed up. Forced to fight for his political life as stories keep circulating and reporters keep chasing, Hart's situation proves a time capsule of sorts. Unfaithful politicians are splashed across the news with frequency today, but we no longer live in a world where a highly publicised extramarital affair (or worse) precludes someone from becoming America's commander-in-chief.
Is that the right outcome or the wrong one? Without overstating the parallels between then and now, The Front Runner successfully shows just how much has changed. That said, the movie also leans heavily on Hart's chief rebuttal to his attackers — that exposing his indiscretions cheapens political discourse. Initially shot and packaged with jaunty, fast-paced flair reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin's political dramas, or of writer-director Jason Reitman's own Thank You For Smoking and Up In The Air, the film doesn't always find a comfortable position. It wants viewers to condemn the current status quo, feel for Hart, experience the deflating effect the controversy has on his loyal staffers, and realise that, without this incident, history could've been very, very different. They're not always compatible ideas, even in a movie that knows how complicated the scenario is. More than that, they're not always given the depth they need by Reitman, Bai and Jay Carson's screenplay.
Never lacking in complexity is Jackman, whose performance is charismatic without being smooth and serious without being sombre. Hart isn't the greatest showman, but rather a great believer in the power of elected office — and someone who believes he should get his chance to ascend to the top job. It's the kind of layered portrayal that hasn't featured on Jackman's resume that often of late. Beyond its leading man, however, The Front Runner is well-served by its entire cast. Paxton is never simply the stereotypical other woman, and nor is Farmiga just the bland, dutiful wife. JK Simmons, alongside Paranormal Activity alum Molly Ephraim, convincingly rides the ups and downs that come with working for the senator. But, worlds away from his work in Patti Cake$ and The Get Down, it's Athie who threatens to steal the show. Playing a young journalist trying to do what's right even when he's told that it's wrong, the actor provides the film's conflicted centre.