MOVIE REVIEW: The Front Runner gets it so wrong
THIS movie should've been a no-brainer.
Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons in a political drama directed by Jason Reitman (Up In The Air, Tully) is an enticing proposition - catnip to moviegoers who love flicks like The Post, All The President's Men or TV such as The West Wing.
Perhaps that's why The Front Runner is so disappointing, because the potential was there. As it is, it's a misguided defence of a man and an attitude that feels particularly ludicrous in 2019.
The Front Runner wants us to judge ourselves and the media for, in its view, tearing down political dignity and losing our souls in the process.
But all it's really doing is betraying itself as antiquated, a wistful diatribe about the "good old days" when men in positions of power could carry on affairs with women half their age and not face any consequences.
With a script by Reitman, former Hillary Clinton Press Secretary Jay Carson and author Matt Bai, based on Bai's 2014 book, All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, The Front Runner is the story of felled politician Gary Hart.
In 1987, Hart (Jackman) was the presumptive Democratic nominee for the US presidential race, well ahead of his opponents in early polling.
A policy wonk with a gift for communicating big ideas and future forecasting, Hart was like Kennedy-lite, and his supporters expected him to beat George H.W. Bush in the general election.
Within three weeks of launching his campaign, he pulled out of the race after the 50-year-old Hart was exposed as having a dalliance with a 29-year-old aspiring campaign worker, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton).
As portrayed by Jackman, Hart was a dedicated public servant but also fiercely private, frustrated by the campaign's efforts to sell him to the American public as someone who's more than economic talking points.
He bristles at having to pose for a magazine story and chides anyone, including his own staffers, who dares mention anything personal.
When he's confronted by reporters who had staked out his home after a tip-off about an affair, he is incensed. Hart, who hung out with then-notorious playboy Warren Beatty, is of the firm view that what he does in his bedroom is not relevant to his tilt for the presidency.
The Front Runner is as much about Hart, a man the movie sees as a good person being sacrificed on the alter of salacious gossip, as it is about indicting the media for daring to go after so-called "zipper stories".
What happens to Hart is a turning point in US politics - before that there were "gentlemen's agreements" between the press and those in power that they wouldn't whisper about all the women - not their wives - being shuffled in and out of politicians' hotel rooms.
In Hart's defence, he doesn't understand why he's not being given the same courtesy as JFK or Lyndon Johnson. That he's supposedly the first person in US politics who didn't get a free pass on that behaviour doesn't mean it shouldn't have happened.
That protection racket ("Go on, good sport") is part of the game that kept men in power and women in the dark, unable to crack into institutions because they didn't know the secret fraternity handshake.
Reitman and co make a few small concessions to the other side of the argument, namely in the female characters - Farmiga as Hart's wife Lee who is deeply hurt by her husband's actions, the naive Rice, campaign staffer Irene (Molly Ephraim) and Post reporter Ann Devroy (Ari Graynor), the only person who explains why a man exploiting his power to bed young women is maybe not the person to be president.
Judged by today's standards after decades where the prosecution of a politician's personal life has become the norm, The Front Runner's insistence that maybe things shouldn't have changed feels anachronistic.
Hart may not have been lecturing voters on family morality like Barnaby Joyce did, but The Front Runner has not made a convincing argument why he should be spared. He doesn't even come off as a particularly gifted politician who could've changed the course of history - for all of its bellyaching about ideas and policy, The Front Runner doesn't go into Hart's grand vision for the future.
If nothing else, to blithely issue a challenge to the media, even offhandedly, to follow him around and then cavort with his mistress less than 24 hours later shows a shocking lack of judgment.
Should we be more focused on ideas and policy than be distracted by spectacle and sex scandals? Yes, of course. But that doesn't mean voters don't have the right to know about something they might consider to be a moral defect in a potential leader's character. The contract is we get to pick them.
The problem isn't so much that The Front Runner is telling Hart's story (and why not, it's an interesting story), or drawing the bow that somehow Hart's downfall is how we ended up with Donald Trump 30 years later.
Ultimately, The Front Runner fails to adequately explore the idea of the public versus the private with nuance. It sort of gives up and just backs Hart as the hero.
But more often than not he's the villain with his hubristic entitlement, petulance and arrogant insistence that he's beyond reproach - reminders of Brett Kavanaugh's red-faced, rageful display during his Supreme Court confirmation will make your stomach turn.
The more it swings behind Hart, the more off-putting the film becomes.
Perhaps the real disappointment is, on a technical level, The Front Runner is a great film, a movie you want to love - it's beautifully crafted with Robert Altman-esque vibes, a dynamic energy and skilled, entrancing performances, and Reitman is usually a filmmaker with his pulse on human nature.
But its undoing, like Gary Hart himself, is that it buys into his bulls**t.
The Front Runner is in cinemas from Thursday, January 31.
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