Some filmmakers are bursting with so many ideas that they overpack their films with metaphors, symbols, and themes. If they laid their expressions out on a canvas, the results would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. In his second feature of the year, The Front Runner, director Jason Reitman defines his picture through his use of negative space. The film and its story about political candidate Gary Hart only paints a partial image. Grasping Reitman’s social statement requires stepping back and contemplating The Front Runner within the context of 2018’s political landscape.
For a brief time, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Young, handsome, and idealistic, Hart had the respect, political savvy, and the momentum to defeat George Bush for the seat in the White House. Reporters from the Miami Herald derailed his campaign when they broke a story about Hart’s extra-marital affairs. The calamity captured the nation’s attention, and the film frames it as the moment the country’s obsession with scandals overtook its respect for privacy.
The Front Runner employs a cast of talented actors who all do solid work in bit parts. To call them wasted is a disservice – I’ll take five minutes of Alfred Molina any day – but I wish the script gave its large cast more to do than act as philosophical totems. Vera Farmiga stars as Hart’s shamed wife, Bill Burr appears as a feisty Miami Herald reporter, and Mamoudou Athie plays a young reporter who only wants to cut through all the bullshit. It’s Reitman alumni J.K. Simmons who receives the meatiest bits to chew on. He’s loud, commanding, and at times wistful, as Hart’s right-hand-man Bill Dixon. But even Simmons feels underutilized.
One way to gauge an actor’s talent is whether they disappear in a role. Do they breathe so much life and personality into a character that you forget you’re watching a Hollywood star? I’ve been watching Jackman play Wolverine – and other great roles – for almost two decades. But watching him here, with that same furrowed brow and imposing frame, I didn’t catch the faintest hint of Logan. Jackman makes the character come alive onscreen even though Hart never pops as a compelling personality.
Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Jason Reitman’s script doesn’t plumb Gary Hart’s emotional depths. Much of the time the film shackles us to the perspective of the reporters trailing him. We don’t even see the alleged other woman’s face until well into the movie. When pressed by reporters, Hart resorts to loud displays of righteous indignation. But we can’t be sure of his real moral stance. We know he likes hanging out with the legendary playboy, Warren Beatty, and parties with young women onboard boats with names like Monkey Business. It’s up to viewers to decipher how much of these moral outrage explosions are Hart honestly taking offence to allegations versus his calculated acts damage control.
The Front Runner is ultimately a story about how capitalism contributes to the slow rot of American integrity. Look at the most divisive issues facing the nation today: Healthcare for all, defence spending, tax cuts for the rich, gun control, the prison industrial complex. What do they all have in common? Democrats and Republicans would have fixed these issues by now if their current systems weren’t as lucrative for their campaign donors. But that’s the way the world functions when money rules (C.R.E.A.M.). To survive and thrive, in a competitive market, a business must go where the money is, and The Fourth Estate isn’t above these principals. Reitman uses the film to paint a vivid picture of what this idealistic pivot looks like in the field of journalism.
The journalists who take down Hart aren’t sleazy TMZ-style hacks or aggressive paparazzi. Reitman makes sure to express their trepidation about revealing a man’s private affairs. The news outlets find no joy in breaking this type of story, but they know the business, and they know if they don’t cover the news someone else will. And they’re all in the business of selling papers. The ultra-competitive media landscape is sink or swim, and moral integrity can weigh you down as much as a steel anchor. Reitman depicts the tabloid-ification of Hart’s story less as a revelation than an inevitability.
As someone who doesn’t recall the Hart controversy, this film didn’t do enough to contextualize what happened. Reitman relays vital details, but The Front Runner lacks the nuance and texture to bring the account to life. I get that Hart was an impressive politician and that losing him was a blow, but I didn’t understand why. Certain politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, have an “it” factor that draws people to them even when they’re not on stage. This film doesn’t give us that wow-factor that sky-rocketed Hart’s career and made his loss such a blow. Reitman’s focus is spotlighting the decline of the media and not humanizing Hart or the journalists investigating him.
If you go into this film expecting to be thoroughly entertained, you’ll leave disappointed. The characters, plot, and presentation don’t offer the most compelling watch. To get the most out of The Front Runner one must grasp the bigger picture. Today’s politicians air out their opponent’s dirty laundry as though they’re WWE superstars cutting promos. And we eat up every minute of it. Whose job is it then, to stop serving the stories we want in favour of the news that we need? Until we figure that out, should for-profit media organizations set the tone for the nation’s political discourse? I’ll think about that question as soon as I read CNN’s story about Kanye West singing karaoke.