The story of Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator who twice tried to run for president, is a cautionary tale that has faded into memory since it happened 30 years ago. Writer/director Jason Reitman has brought it back as a bit of Oscar bait with The Front Runner.
In 1987, Hart (Hugh Jackman) was considered to be the clear front runner for not only the Democratic nomination for president in the 1988 election, but to win the presidency itself. Relatively young, good-looking, and full of charisma, he was expected to overwhelm all challengers with ease.
He also had a habit of seeing women outside of his marriage, something that had been winked at with many previous politicians, but one which would prove to be his undoing. Reporters embedded with his campaign took his invitation to follow him around literally, uncovering an apparent affair with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), among other indiscretions.
The film, co-written by Reitman, Matt Bai (who wrote the book on which the film is based), and Jay Carson, concentrates on the three-week period between Hart’s candidacy announcement and his subsequent suspension of his campaign. Given the very short amount of time in which the film takes place, you’d expect the story to move like a freight train. Instead, it has a curious lack of energy that never allows for any excitement to build.
Reitman and his team work hard to make the point that the prying into Hart’s personal life was a shifting point in American politics, but given the current state of affairs in 2018, it all feels a bit quaint. It’s easy to see how what transpired could turn into a scandal, but the film fails to make it seem as much of an earth-shattering moment as they want it to be.
The storytelling also comes off as a kind of a copy of a copy. It has variety of heated moments within the campaign or in newspaper offices that would work well if you hadn’t seen them done better in many other political or journalism movies. A tighter focus or a different approach might have yielded more positive results.
All of that would be moot were Jackman as magnetic as he’s called on to be. However, he never really “becomes” Hart; he’s just Hugh Jackman with a bad haircut/wig. As such, key moments that could lend greater depth to the character wind up falling flat.
On the other hand, the film is full of superlative supporting performances. J.K. Simmons, Molly Ephraim, Mamoudou Athie, Steve Zissis, and more keep the film interesting enough to warrant sitting through the whole thing. Even if the story as a whole can’t find a foothold, these actors find ways to shine.
The Front Runner would seem to be a movie for our times, or at least one that could provide a partial explanation for how we got here. Instead, it’s a mostly inert drama that will likely wind up as forgotten as Hart’s presidential ambitions.