The Front Runner (Sony Pictures, R)

When I saw the notices for a movie called The Front Runner, my first thought was “Oh great, somebody has finally made a movie of Patricia Nell Warren’s novel about gay runners!” No such luck: the movie now playing in the theatres is about Gary Hart’s campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee for 1988.

I don’t have a huge concern about spoilers when it comes to films about well-known historical events (news flash—The Apollo 13 crew returned safely to earth!), but if you do, you shouldn’t read any reviews of this movie, including this one, or for that matter anything about Gary Hart or the 1988 presidential campaign. If you were alive and sentient in the 1980s, or are a fan of American political history, then you probably remember the basic story. A senator from Colorado blessed with telegenic looks rivaling that of Rick Perry (a.k.a. “Governor Goodhair“), Hart was viewed as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the 1988 campaign. Then it all came apart it was revealed that Hart—a married man with two children–was having an affair with a woman named Donna Rice.

Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner offers a fragmented, Altman-esqe view of the Hart campaign. The cinematography by Eric Steelberg is excellent and the cast is strong, including Hugh Jackman as Hart, Vera Farmiga as his wife Lee, J.K. Simmons as his campaign manager Bill Dixon, and Sara Paxton as Donna Rice. The period detail is also quite good, and if you have a fetish for late 1980’s technology (land lines, cell phones the size of bricks, cameras that shoot on film that has to be developed) you’ll find a lot ot enjoy in The Front Runner.

The main problem with this film is that it feels like a re-enactment of an essentially boring process (both the political campaign process and the job of covering it are presented as a series of minutiae rather than discussions of big ideas) executed by people who are never established as characters we should care about. (Note to directors trying to imitate Robert Altman—his films are packed with memorable characters, and you would do well to do likewise). The Front Runner also wants to have it both ways: Hart is revealed as a self-important bag of hot air long before Donna Rice comes on the scene, yet is also granted gratuitous scenes whose only purpose is to make us like him (one involves his daughter, another a young reporter). Reitman tries to present Hart as a serious thinker, but more often he comes off like a someone who claims to want a job but refuses to interview for it, because he’s above such trivialities as following standard procedures.

References to the fact that the press did not cover the womanizing of John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson also ring hollow, not only because said events took place almost three decades previously, but also because the press should not act as part of a political campaign’s publicity team. A candidate would like to present a carefully curated view of himself or herself to the public, and it’s the job of the press to question that construct, not to reinforce it.

It’s not unusual for a movie or a book to claim that the events they are portraying are represent some pivotal moment in the course of history, because that means it can stake a claim to your attention not on the grounds of being well made, but on the grounds of being important. The claim made in The Front Runner, based on the book All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by journalist Matt Bai, is that the Hart campaign represented a substantial change in the way political campaigns were covered in the media. Before Hart, apparently, media coverage was all about substance, while after Hart, it became mostly about chasing ratings and digging up dirt about candidates. I’m not a scholar of American political history, but it seems to me that many deleterious aspects of campaign coverage—such as focusing attention on who’s in the lead rather than what the candidates stand for—was well established before Hart came along. So was the practice of newspaper reporters digging into politician’s private lives–just ask Barney Frank. And don’t many scholars believe the 1960 election was pivotally influenced by which of the candidates looked better on television? | Sarah Boslaugh

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