The Front Runner: The story of a political scandal feels more like apologia

by Russell Baillie / 11 February, 2019
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A new movie about American Senator Gary Hart’s failed presidential bid doesn't quite chime with the mood of 2019.

After Spotlight in 2015 and The Post last year, it’s a brave film that would suggest print journalism isn’t always a force for good in American public life. But that’s what The Front Runner attempts in its dramatisation of how Senator Gary Hart’s 1987 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination imploded after revelations of an extramarital affair.

It’s a movie that is impressively crafted by director Jason Reitman. He employs Robert Altman-esque touches in his atmospheric, intricate depiction of the political and media circus around Hart, who tried to insist his private life shouldn’t be the story, but failed.

But in wanting to be also an illustrative lesson in journalism ethics by pointing to a time that is, in media years, ancient history, The Front Runner feels slightly quaint, especially considering the events that some of those who’ve actually won the White House since 1988 have survived.

As the title of the 2014 Matt Bai book on which it is based, All The Truth Is Out: The week politics went tabloid, suggests, the film posits, in its endless newsroom discussions, that the Hart scandal was a tipping point. That the US broadsheets that had looked the other way when it came to past presidents’ private indiscretions would no longer hold the line in the looming age of the 24-hour news cycle.

But that doesn’t make The Front Runner particularly interesting. Neither does Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Hart, nor the worrying wig he’s given to do it in. His restrained performance renders him a hollow centre to a swirling ensemble of family, campaign staff and reporters. There’s enough to suggest that Hart was both a gifted politician and a man of hidden shallows. It’s just not much of a character study or a particularly exciting scandal drama.

Meanwhile, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the woman whom Hart, some 20 years older, met on a Florida gin palace named “Monkey Business”, barely figures until Hart’s campaign team quarantines her for damage control. Had this been Rice’s story, more than what feels like an apologia for Hart, the film might have had something relevant to say in 2019. As it is, The Front Runner is more also-ran.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

Video: Sony Pictures Entertainment

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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