THE FRONT RUNNER
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Matt Bai, Jay Carson, Jason Reitman, based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Josh Brener, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/15/18
Opens: November 6, 2018
People in power are chick magnets. Their influence can be in music, politics, Hollywood, business, finance. It seems not to matter whether the magnet is rich or not as long as he is well known, with a publicized career. Being a chick magnet turned out to be quite bad for Gary Hart, but even worse for the United States. If Hart kept his pants zipped, here’s what would have happened. George H.W. Bush would not have been elected because Hart would have creamed him in both popular vote and the electoral college. With the elder Bush out of the picture, George W. Bush, i.e. his legacy son Dubya, would not have been even nominated. Hart would have enjoyed two terms, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have happened, the Supreme Court would be firmly progressive, and Trump would continue with his life bilking the public with his university and stiffing his workers on his buildings. Hillary would be president now.
This is all possible, but who knows? The public is fickle. The American people did not know or care that FDR, LBJ, and JFK were having affairs outside of marriage. The three were elected, in part because winning World War 2 and getting out of the Great Depression were more important to us than what Roosevelt did privately in his wheelchair. Nowadays the public seems not to care much about the most womanizing president in history, one who dismisses what he has said about women as “locker room talk.” But between the events in administrations from the sixties and the who-cares attitude of even Evangelicals nowadays was a flurry of puritanism. Gary Hart lost the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984, though in 1988 he was 12 points ahead of his nearest rival, Dukakis and could have beaten Bush. Thanks to the sneakiness of the press, particularly the Miami Herald—which caught Hart spending the night with model Dona Rice in his Washington digs and also sitting on his lap during a yacht party—he was rejected by the voters and had to withdraw from the campaign.
In Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” Gary Hart is played by handsome Hugh Jackman, with a thick head of graying hair; his wife Oletha “Lee” Hart, by Vera Farmiga, his campaign manager Bill Dixon, by J.K. Simmons, and Donna Rice, the model who ruined his presidential chances, by Sara Paxton. An assortment of folks, almost all men, represent the Miami Herald and the Washington Post.
The opening is done in the style of Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” an assortment of people talking over each other, in a confusing array of jabbering. The audience cannot be blamed for longing for a scene that focuses on a few people and one journal as was done successfully by Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” but then, you don’t find a director like Spielberg everywhere. For his part, Montreal-born director Jason Reitman, whose best picture “Up in the Air,” dealt with a guy hired to travel the country firing workers, now takes on the media, responsible for firing what would have been the next president.
In scenes involving just two people, Gary and his wife Lee, you would not be faulted for thinking of Hillary and Bill who, like Hart and Lee remained married despite their men’s being in heat at the wrong times. The most outrageous scene takes place outside Hart’s Washington D.C. home (his wife stayed behind in their Colorado home) where reporters sneaked into his garden, watched Donna Rice entering, but not did not see her leaving. They therefore assumed that Rice spent the night, which is doubtless what they wanted to believe, since sex sells papers. Though Hart, as furious as Brett Kavanaugh in denying wrongdoing, insists that Rice left by the back door, nobody is convinced.
Hart made two mistakes. He challenged journalists to follow him everywhere as though to prove he was a choir boy—and of course he wouldn’t be doing anything risqué during that period). He also insisted, however accurately, that what he did in his home was none of anyone’s business, though one reporter challenged him by saying that the country looked for a leader with a code of sexual morality—which would be news to the Trump campaign.
For all we know, the studio has entered “The Front Runner” into this year’s awards competition, perhaps thinking that the audience for “The Post” would also lift this movie’s success in both the box office and in critics’ writings. The principal fault is that Reitman does not focus on a single point, such as “the intrusiveness of the media in things that should not concern them,” of “the way Hart’s relationship with his wife changed, if at all,” or “the nature of the individual who becomes a magnet for the opposite sex and simply cannot keep it zipped even when on the cusp of winning the presidency.” Blame the media if you will, or even the American public for being concerned about the wrong things. Certainly Hart was his own worst enemy.
The film should be seen not only by people who lived through the campaign of 1988 but by those who don’t know Hart from George Washington. It’s a pleasure to see Hugh Jackman in a serious role—particularly if you knew him only for “The X-men,” “Wolverine” and “Logan.” One of Jackman’s favorite quotes is “Everything is like stepping stones, and I’ve seen people I admire falter.” Prescient words. Jackman shows a fairly wide range of emotions successfully: sometimes reacting with justifiable anger, other times convincing us that if elected, Hart would have been able to implement his democratic ideals about the economy. Vera Farmiga has so much class as Hart’s wife versus the bimbo-ish and juvenile attitude of Sara Paxton’s Donna Rice (despite her graduating from college Phi Beta Kappa), that you may wonder what sort of idiot would threaten that relationship along with the presidency for a roll in another barn’s hay. Filming was in Georgia, particularly Atlanta, Savannah and Stone Mountain Park. The screenplay adapts Matt Bai’s book “A the Truth is Out,” available on Amazon for under $14.
113 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B-
Overall – B