As the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics, where conflict and scandal are a common occurrence, and with drama The Front Runner, director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In The Air and Tully) takes us back to a time before intense media scrutiny.
It’s the true story of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), a charming Colorado senator whose passion and sincerity made him a favourite in the run-up to the 1988 US Presidential Election. However, when rumours emerge of an affair with a young woman, a vicious battle with the press ensues that will change the course of political coverage for ever.
The argument at the centre of the movie is an intriguing one: are a presidential hopeful’s misdeeds, no matter how immoral, relevant to his candidacy? In the period in which the film is set, the consensus seems to be “no”, with The Miami Herald’s covert surveillance of Hart seen as distasteful muckraking. In the newsrooms of The Herald and Washington Post, though, there is a push-and-pull between idealists, such as Mamoudou Athie, a young journalist who admires Hart, and his editors who see the commercial value in scandal.
With the conundrum discussed in offices, strategy rooms, and the homes of those affected, Reitman brings a fly-on-the-wall approach to the scandal that’s fascinating given that intruding into the lives of the powerful is commonplace in today’s society. But there’s never a sense of the film answering the questions it poses, drawing equal attention to the wrongdoings of Hart and the brutish nature of the press. That leaves the film feeling slightly inconclusive, however interesting the journey.
With a furrowed brow and presidential demeanour, Jackman is impressive as Hart. It’s easy to believe this figure can inspire so much faith in those who surround him. But, as a cinematic subject, we rarely get beneath the surface of his performance. It’s mainly because Hart spends the film convinced his private life is no-one’s business – he offers no apology and indeed sees himself as the virtuous party for concentrating on politics rather than gossip.
It’s in the ensemble where the film finds its strength. The real bright moments come from characters such as JK Simmons’s campaign manager, a weary veteran who can see Hart’s fate coming, and the superb Vera Farmiga as Hart’s wife Lee, a stoic mother who can no longer look the other way. We also get to see the loss of innocence in Athie’s performance, as he gradually realises the reality of his industry; and in Molly Ephraim’s heartbreaking turn as a young campaigner tasked with “handling” Hart’s mistress, and thereby exposed to the dirty side of politics. Even characters who only appear briefly, such as Bill Burr’s darkly comic newspaper editor, leave their mark.
The Front Runner succeeds in creating a sense of the machinations of a political campaign, and the journalistic monster that seems to constantly threaten to consume it. The film also showcases a number of fine performances from character actors who always seem to deliver, particularly through the lens of a talented director such as Reitman.
It’s just a shame that, for all this keen observation, more insight isn’t offered into what we can learn from this. By the time the credits roll, there’s an inescapable feeling that there was an opportunity to provide our divisive political present with a lesson from the past, and unfortunately that opportunity was missed.
The Front Runner is released in cinemas on Friday 11 January