The Front Runner
Jacob Richardson | 25/01/2018
At times interminably slow, The Front Runner coasts on the power of its lead and the inherent draw of its story.
Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A U.S. senator from Colorado, he is running for the highest office in the land on a platform of radical, effective and, in the lens of history, progressive ideas. Against the better judgement of his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), and in an effort to stop dogged and persistent rumors about the arrangement he and his wife have around infidelity, Hart challenges the press to “follow him around” while not campaigning, claiming they will be very bored. This proves to be a mistake when, in 1987, photos of him and a young lady named Donna Rice at his townhouse in Washington D.C. are published by the Miami Herald, effectively derailing his, until then successful, presidential campaign.
Hugh Jackman does A LOT of shouting in this movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because when it comes to turning on the rage nobody does it better than the ex-Adamantium claw wielding Aussie. And undoubtedly, watching Jackman embody the virtues and vices of this man is entertaining. The problem is that the story around him never takes on the clear cut rage, joy, or humor that Jackman’s performance so often does.
Director Jason Reitman really struggles with the delivery of the moral tale of this piece, because at the crux of it Gary Hart is a man of intense contradiction. That contradiction doesn’t fit into the cookie cutter interpretation of what the hero of our story is meant to be.
Undoubtedly, the purpose of this piece is to deliver somewhat of an assault on the media - casting them (and, to be fair, the public at large) as the devils for engaging with gossip as front page news. There’s an overarching theme that journalism is meant to be more pure - or should we say impure, most notably in a tale from a Washington Post editor about his days in the Press Pool with Lyndon B. Johnson after JFK. The problem is that on the other side, ‘the hero’ is too conflicted to ever make this film easily digestible.
Our hero is the leading left of the Democratic party, with a swathe of incredibly progressive policies that are going to save the economy, the environment, education and bring ethics back to politics. Now that’s a hero you can get behind in the tale of the media unjustly targeting someone. Alas, our hero is also a womanizing philanderer who screams and shouts at his (often underpaid) aides as they try their best to salvage the burning wreckage of his career. Now that’s not a hero you can get behind.
These two polarities create an incredibly difficult dynamic for Reitman to wring any outrage out of the audience. You can’t really be outraged at Gary, because you love his politics and see the damage the events are causing him and his family, but you also can’t be outraged with the media because this man is lying and committing adultery.
There are a swathe of great supporting performances, coupled with an intriguing method of direction from Reitman that almost feels like the audience is the reporter hiding in the bushes, with dialogue often more muted than visuals, but all of that falls away in this drama because we can never really get behind a hero - can never really feel outrage, surprise or heartbreak. Maybe though, in this age of reality TV star presidents, that is the message. There are no heroes, no one is pure or good, and no amount of shouty Hugh Jackman will ever change that.
The Front Runner is a conflicting piece, but despite all the clever directorial nods and indelible performances, never makes you feel.