Whilst the current landscape of American politics is translating overseas, in 1988, a huge political scandal in the States didn’t have that impact. Gary Hart hasn’t become a staple of our common knowledge. Political supporters aside, the most basic understanding of Hart’s campaign is that he had an affair with Donna Rice, which ruined his chance of becoming President of the United States. Jason Reitman takes us on an in-depth journey into the sudden downfall of Hart’s campaign.
The Front Runner is less about Hart himself and more about the sudden change of relationship between the press and politicians. We’re told from the offset that “a lot can happen in three weeks” so you’d be mistaken for thinking you were solely in for two hours of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) derailing his own campaign. Hart denies the press’ claims of adultery as other senators had knowingly had controversial private lives before him without any repercussions. Unfortunately for him, his manager Bill Dixon (JK Simmons) explains, “That’s not the way things work anymore”. The public now care about their personal lives just as much as their policies. Hart lays the blame at the press’ feet, much akin to how Nixon resigned (Nixon even congratulated Hart on how he handled the situation in real life). This makes AJ Parker’s (Mamoudou Athie) character a particularity compelling watch. As a member of the press who feels the invasion into Hart’s life is morally wrong, we see through his eyes how what used to be considered gossip turned into front-page headlines overnight. We also witness the mutual respect between Hart and Parker go out the window during tense interviews, something Parker, unlike the rest of the press, seemingly hated doing. This dynamic helps to show that it wasn’t as simple as “The Press vs Gary Hart”.
What is most impressive is the way every character is humanised.
Sensing that the scandal only made up a few of the 21 days, the narrative smartly decides to focus on a number of different people affected by the events that transpired (The prominent word here being affected, not involved). What is most impressive is the way every character is humanised. The members of Hart’s campaign team may not leave their names imprinted in your mind, but they’re more than just background extras. Rather than seeing Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) quickly sending Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) on her way, we see the two engage in conversation about the possible outcomes of the scandal. This soon transcends into a subtle, yet believable friendship. Alongside this, we also see Joe Trippi (Oliver Cooper) tasked with checking in on Gary’s wife, Lee Hart (Vera Farmiga). While not expanded upon enough, it’s another moment that could’ve easily been skipped over, but instead adds to the larger scheme of everything. It’s just a shame that some characters (like Bill Dixon) go AWOL or forget how to speak during the second half of the film. When we see the fallout of Hart’s actions through others’ eyes, everything combines to really hit home how huge this scandal was.
While it’s not quite as stunning as it was once touted to be, Jackman is as reliable as ever.
Obviously, it wasn’t just his hard-working team who were affected. Donna Rice, the woman Hart had the alleged affair with clearly suffered the consequences. At first, it seems as if she is going to be a throwaway plot device, but as the scandal unfolds, we begin to get an insight into her life. She’s judged by men because of this one moment, despite being a smart and highly educated woman. She even says to Dixon; “I did all the things a woman should do to stop men looking at me the way you are now”. That line really cuts deep into the misogyny that plagues news scandals and who the blame falls on. Despite both parties taking part, it seemed as if the understanding was that the woman would be the scapegoat.
Jason Reitman delivers…a solid, if slightly unremarkable effort into a political scandal.
The one link that holds all these threads together is Gary Hart himself. Early reports suggested that Hugh Jackman may be on his way to earning himself a second Oscar nomination. While that hasn’t happened, it doesn’t take anything away from his tremendous performance. We witness a charismatic politician, seemingly destined to become a legend. It’s no surprise that Jackman, a well established all around nice guy, shines in the role. During the press conferences especially, we see his charisma at the forefront. However, we see a switch in personality when the story begins to break. The resentment and anger he has towards the press channel his inner Wolverine and you feel the mood of an entire room change instantly. But clearly, he still has to act charming for the cameras and, even under increased scrutiny and questioning, he successfully makes you understand how people still rooted for him. While it’s not quite as stunning as it was once touted to be, Jackman is as reliable as ever.
Jason Reitman’s latest doesn’t quite hit the heights of some of his other pieces of work (Tully, Juno), but what he delivers is a solid, if slightly unremarkable effort into a political scandal. By shifting the focus onto those around Hart, The Front Runner never slumps to a standstill like his campaign. What also helped was how he didn’t try to cram a political message about today’s climate in. Even though it would’ve been extremely easy to do so, it allows the story to have its moment in the spotlight and doesn’t distract from the overall narrative.