Ivan Reitman’s latest, The Front Runner, is an unexpectedly topical account about what we have the right to expect from our politicians – and perhaps what we don’t.
It’s 1988, and Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) seems like the ideal candidate for the Democratic nomination.
He has an innate ability to make the issues comprehensible to the casual voter. He’s rugged and has a great head of hair – a six-point head of hair according to his campaign manager Bill Hart (JK Simmons, brusque yet lovable). He’s also stubborn and uncompromising, which isn’t a point of particular concern, except when it comes to his private life…
Co-scripted by Reitman, political columnist Matt Bai (he wrote the book on which it’s is based), and former Hillary speechwriter Jay Carson, the film is a buzzy, if downbeat affair. Witty and documentarian in its approach – no rapid-fire Sorkinesque repartee or House Of Cards cynicism – The Front Runner is about thwarted idealism; how the campaign of a uniquely capable liberal candidate was derailed by our hunger for scandal.
Reitman makes casual use of extended takes, transporting us through packed political rallies where anchor men give their reports virtually back to back and press rooms populated with the likes of Bill Burr (as a Miami Herald hack) and Mamoudou Athie’s AJ, an idealistic young reporter for The Washington Post, dismayed by the way journalism is headed.
Even veteran newspaperman Ben Bradlee – recently portrayed by Tom Hanks in The Post, played here by Alfred Molina – isn’t casually resigned to the need to give the public what they want.
Hart’s presumed infidelity is viewed not as a moral issue or personal failing, but as a point of character – one, perhaps, that has no bearing on his taking political office. Jackman’s performance, never quite relaxed, is characterised by outraged conviction as refuses to engage with the press.
He may be at The Front Runner‘s centre, but the film treats him more as a case study than a flesh-and-blood human. Is his challenge to the press – to follow him if they so desire – born purely of arrogance? Is his defensiveness the show of a hypocrite or a man who honestly believes in “the sanctity of the process”? How are supposed to judge him? Are we?
The film’s sympathies lie instead with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), who realises that, despite her qualifications, she will forever be “the woman”, and, to a lesser extent, Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), who resents not his extramarital activities so much as his inability to keep them discreet.
Rob Simonsen’s percussive, marching-band score drives us on with Eric Steelberg’s characterful cinematography provides the atmosphere, but The Front Runner‘s purpose is summarised ably by Hart himself when he says, “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.” Take from that what you may.