‘The Front Runner’ a political drama
‘How did we get here?’ asks Jason Reitman in “The Front Runner”, dredging the past for answers with this ambitious – and almost intentionally unwieldy – Altmanesque re-enactment of the three weeks in which Gary Hart’s bid to become the 1988 Democratic nominee for president was undone by tabloid-style monkey business. Hugh Jackman proves an inspired candidate to embody Hart, downplaying his brawny movie-star persona, while still conveying the twinkle-eyed sex appeal that was not only Hart’s undoing, but one of the qualities that would have made the photogenic and well-spoken senator from Colorado a logical choice to follow the country’s first movie-star president.
Hart was the man who would be king, poised to succeed Ronald Reagan, but because he withdrew, America got George H.W. Bush instead. Had Hart won, history would have gone otherwise. As political reporter Matt Bai writes in his book “All the Truth Is Out” (which serves as the backbone of Reitman’s film, which he and Bai co-wrote with former political consultant Jay Carson), had Hart won, “it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.” America wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Our relationship with Russia would have been different (Hart was friendly with Mikhail Gorbachev and says he would have invited him to the inauguration). And Donald Trump might still be selling neckties and frozen steaks, rather than running the country.
To tell that story would be science fiction, whereas Reitman finds himself more interested in historical fact, proceeding on the assumption that most Americans – especially those who lived through the Hart scandal – have a foggy idea of how it happened. Until Bai’s excellent autopsy of a book, few had any notion of the significance what has since become a political footnote played in re-shaping how the press reoriented their approach to covering candidates’ private lives going forward.
Hart’s implosion, centered around whether he committed adultery with a model named Donna Rice, was virtually unprecedented in US politics – not the adultery, but the notion that it might be newsworthy (apparently, FDR, JFK, and LBJ had all conducted affairs before and during their time in office, and the press dutifully looked the other way). By 1988, times were changing. The Watergate scandal had transformed the role of the media, who had not only managed to expose and unseat a corrupt president (Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, immortalized by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men” and by Tom Hanks in last year’s “The Post”, appears here, too, this time played by Alfred Molina), but also took it as a personal responsibility not to let another slip past them un-vetted. The technology of news coverage was evolving quickly as well, and Reitman goes out of his way to depict such changes, from fax machines to satellite-equipped TV news vans, painting the Miami Herald reporter who got the scoop, Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis), as some kind of slimy, bottom-of-the-food-chain sell-out – the Judas of political journalism.
So, let’s say that Bai is correct that what happened to Hart marked a turning point in campaign news coverage (certainly, there had never been an expose where reporters went looking for scandal in quite this way, sneaking around a politician’s home like snoops for a Hollywood gossip magazine). But how does one dramatize this shift? As if drawn to such challenges, Reitman’s never-easy approach is to re-create the three-ring circus that are the presidential primaries, opening with an elaborately choreographed three-minute group shot – ersatz Altman, a la “Nashville” – of the press corps gathered outside the 1984 Democratic National Convention, closing on a monitor of Walter Mondale deflating Hart’s chances with a pop-culture zinger: “Where the beef?”
Hart may not have nabbed the nomination, but the campaign put him on the nation’s radar, and by the time the film jumps forward four years later, he’s ahead by 12 points in the polls – and poised to run against a man, Bush, who had been head of the CIA (though who needs conspiracies when a candidate does so much to self-sabotage?). Reitman and editor Stefan Grube orchestrate high-energy scenes intended to convey the feeding-frenzy dynamic of the campaign, cross-cutting between various press gatherings in which rumors of Hart’s “womanizing” first surface and a strategy roundtable overseen by Hart’s idealistic campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), who vowed never to step foot in Washington again after what’s about to happen to him here.
Considering co-writers Bai and Carson’s real-world experience working on both sides of such a show – Bai as a journalist, Carson as a campaign consultant – one is inclined to trust their testosterone-fueled, Ivy League-educated behind-the-scenes banter (often spoken by slobs with food in their mouths). And yet, “The Front Man” too often relies on the tired press-as-mob-of-hungry-jackals cliche, while conspicuously lacking the kind of elegant, eloquent rhythms of a crackling Aaron Sorkin script, relying instead on an obnoxious marching-band score to power through all this scene-setting. Jackman, as Hart, should cut through all this noise with his camera-ready persona, speaking truth to power, but instead, he has a hard time being heard much of the time – which is (conveniently) how Reitman plays the scene aboard the Monkey Business yacht where he met Rice (Sara Paxton).
Early on, the only character who gets a scene to herself is Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), seen playing piano at her home in the aptly naed town of Troublesome Gulch, Colo. For everyone else, the point seems to be that privacy – not just personal discretion, but alone time – is something they must learn to live without on the campaign trail. And then Washington Post journalist A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie, playing a composite of pretty much every journalist who wasn’t Fielder) spots Hart making a personal call from a phone booth, and the press start putting two and two together. But it’s not until Fielder receives an anonymous tip from one of Rice’s friends (whom Bai identified as Dana Weems) that he takes the initiative to do what few if any political reporters had done before: Instead of letting candidates set the agenda with issue-related talking points, he changed the subject, proactively refocusing the conversation around Hart’s private life.
Today, the public’s memory has crystallized around the idea that Hart challenged the press to “Follow me around, I don’t care” (a line uttered to the New York Times Magazine’s E.J. Dionne Jr, but attributed to the Post here) and that the Miami Herald took him up on the offer, staking out his home in Washington, D.C. But it didn’t quite happen that way – in fact, as Bai goes to great lengths to point out in his book, Fielder plucked that line from an advance copy of the Times Magazine’s profile and retroactively used it to justify their stakeout, depicted here like a bumbling Keystone Kops routine, building to a “gotcha” scene in Hart’s alley where he confronts these amateur paparazzi. (RTRS)
By Peter Debruge