The best thing about the film The Front Runner is that it gives Gary Hart, the Colorado senator and 1984 and ’88 presidential candidate, a measure of dignity, and today’s audiences a historical context in which to view his missteps. Not that Hart (played onscreen by Hugh Jackman) was a martyr: In the movie, he comes off as an excruciatingly limited man, unable to rise to the occasion when his infidelities are exposed. (Rise to the occasion, heh-heh. Hugh Jack-man, heh-heh. Gary Hart brings out one’s inner Beavis. I remember David Letterman’s Top Ten Gary Hart Pick-Up Lines: “Can a Kennedyesque kind of guy buy you a drink?” “Ever seen a front runner naked?”) Where was I? Oh, yes: a measure of dignity. The buzz saw Hart walked into in ’88 hadn’t existed before he was photographed on the deck of a yacht called, of all things, Monkey Business, with a young woman named Donna Rice on his lap. (Q: Where’s the beef? A: It’s in the rice!) Until that moment, reporters who fancied themselves legitimate looked the other way when male candidates had illicit trysts. The question hangs over the movie: Was that journalistic abstinence a good or bad thing? There’s no firm answer, but the director, Jason Reitman, certainly has his biases.
Based on a fine, sympathetic exhumation called All the Truth Is Out by Matt Bai (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Carson and Reitman), The Front Runner gets off to a lively start. Reitman has plainly studied the wonderful Robert Altman–Garry Trudeau mini-series Tanner ’88, and in early scenes does a passable Altman imitation, his frames packed with people talking over one another — while being careful to spoon-feed us with not very Altman-like close-ups. We watch the candidate resist his team (led by J.K. Simmons’s Bill Dixon) as they attempt to squeeze him into more traditional molds: Hart thinks he’s too serious, too issue-oriented, too real to strike “game-show host” poses, while his people just think that “the personal isn’t his comfort zone.” We watch the news staff of the Washington Post (led by an unlikely Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee) muse on the state of Hart’s on-again-off-again marriage. And we watch the Miami Herald’s Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) fume over being kept in the reporters’ pool while the WaPo’s A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) gets a rare one-on-one on a plane with Hart. It’s Fiedler who stakes out Hart’s Washington townhouse after overhearing Hart’s indignant invitation to Parker to “follow me around, put a tail on me” if Parker doubts Hart’s marital fidelity. Which means that for all the reporters’ high-minded talk about journalistic responsibility, The Front Runner roots Hart’s comeuppance in a schlubby scribe’s resentment.
Not a surprise, really: Reitman, like most showbiz children of extreme privilege (his father, Ivan, directed Ghostbusters and other hit comedies), will always take the side of the attractive and wealthy liar over the schlubs peering through the window wanting in. (His first film, Thank You for Smoking, took the side of a tobacco-company PR guy, which Reitman knew would make him seem “edgy.” He would probably remake Columbo with Columbo as the bad guy.) His contempt for journalists is in every frame (watch them envelop Sara Paxton’s poor Donna Rice) and in how often they use self-serving language to justify diving into the muck. Reitman gives his game away in the climactic sequence in which Parker — whom we’ve seen being gently and expertly comforted by Hart during a panic attack on the campaign plane — does a Judas Iscariot turn as he debates whether to ask Hart a question in front of the national press corps that he suspects will be the killing blow. He looks at his pad. He suffers. He suffers some more. Then he earns his 30 pieces of silver.
Reitman is canny, though: He knows how to protect himself in the age of #MeToo from seeming too much on the side of an older male taking sexual advantage of a woman who wants a job on his campaign. Reitman gives Ari Graynor as the WaPo’s Ann Devroy an excellent speech in which she bites the head off A.J. Parker for wondering aloud whether Hart’s affairs are anyone else’s business: Hart, she says, is a man with power and opportunity, and journalists ought to care about his patterns of behavior. Vera Farmiga as Hart’s wife Lee and Kaitlyn Dever as his daughter, Andrea, are even stronger female counterweights. It’s a mighty moment when the superb Farmiga trains those pale eyes (which chill and cut) on Jackman’s Hart and tells him to take full responsibility for his deed instead of decrying the gutter press yet again: “You carry it,” she says, “so I don’t have to.”
The Front Runner gets tons of mileage from its smart, energetic actors — from Jackman, Farmiga, and Simmons to Paxton, Zissis, Molly Ephraim, Alex Karpovsky, Kevin Pollak, and others. But its greatest strength is that, however much contempt Reitman has for the press, he and his co-screenwriters haven’t made up their collective mind about their protagonist. They make it clear that Hart was unlucky in his timing: A decade earlier and reporters would have kept their distance; a decade later and he’d either have been more discreet or had a crisis team on hand. Maybe Hart’s personal integrity worked against him, too: He couldn’t brazen it out like those libertines and alleged sexual predators Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. But when Lee says, “You carry it,” and Hart can’t, he seems like the weakest man on earth. In the movie’s eloquent final shot, the screen is split in two: On one side, a TV on which a politician announces that he’s leaving the field, on the other, a man in submission to a woman whom he has publicly betrayed.
The Front Runner is serious business — so serious that there’s no place for breezier speculation about Hart’s bad habits. I’d have liked to hear more, for example, about Warren Beatty, with whom Hart became friends while running George McGovern’s 1972 campaign. Beatty’s name does come up once: He’s quoted as saying that the paparazzi are expected to follow showbiz celebrities but not politicians. But I know people who think Hart’s undoing can be traced to a decision to keep up with the most legendary Hollywood swordsman after Errol Flynn. Trying to match Beatty with women was like trying to match Keith Richards with drugs: You went down hard. But at least Hart is alive to see his own biopic. And still married, too.