THE FRONT RUNNER – movie review


Columbia Pictures
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
The Front Runner Movie Poster
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

AMERICAN CHAOS – movie review


Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  James D. Stern
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 8/23/18
Opens: September 20, 2018
American Chaos Movie Poster
With an introductory remark that “you can’t know another person unless you get into his skin,” James D. Stern takes off on a road trip to what some snobs call flyover country—West Virginia and Arizona—but with stops as well in Miami and Cleveland, the latter being the site of the Republic National Convention in 2016 that certified Donald Trump as nominee for President.  He may not have literally gotten into the skin of Trump supporters, but by playing himself as neutral, he is able to elicit considerable talk from a variety of people in much the way that Claude Lanzmann in “Shoah” in 1985 allowed his subjects to say what they would otherwise keep to themselves if they thought the interviewer were biased against them.

Stern, who lives and breathes politics (his “So Goes the Nation” explored the folks in the Buckeye state before the 2004 presidential election), has an awesome array of 59 production credits, and is in his métier as a friendly but seemingly impartial interviewer.  His subjects are almost all Trump supporters though he occasionally tosses in some comments by Democrats, perhaps to give viewers the feeling that America is not all that chaotic, that there are people who, like one scientist, says that yes, we are undergoing climate change which could prove more dangerous to the earth if steps are not taken quickly.

Except for some moments in the epilogue, Stern deals only with the months before the November 2016 election when people had to get their impression of Trump from what he says rather than what he does, which makes absolutely essential a sequel to discover whether their views have changed, though we already know from the pundits that few Trump supporters have left the fold.

So, what’s wrong with Kansas?  In fact, what’s the secret of Trump’s success across most of the red midlands of our great nation?  The responses are from people who vote for the Republican party—or, if you prefer the language of ex-House speaker John Boehner, the Trump party.  Their views are not unexpected by anyone who has followed politics, whether via Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, the Washington Post and the progressive newspaper, The Arizona Republic.

One subject has an analogy: you don’t want strangers in your home, people you know nothing about, do you?  When we tolerate illegal immigration, we are faced by this dilemma, and in fact, one woman who lives 25 miles from the Mexican border notes (without even winking at the interviewer) that Mexicans sneak across, rape the women, and hang up their underwear as though claiming a victory of sorts.  Thus, she concludes, we must rigorously maintain the power of the Second Amendment—never mind that the Founding Fathers put that into the Constitution soon after colonists were involved in a long war with Britain.

Another respondent argues that previously foreigners have assimilated into the American culture, but not so much now.  They had always kept their ways, perhaps preparing arroz con pollo or imam bayeldi at home, but they will enjoy hot dogs on every Fourth of July. Yet another subject appreciates that the President says what’s on his mind: not like the big bad Democrats who keep their real feelings secretive.  As for climate change, nah: Mother Earth will take care of her own.  Coal miners in West Virginia take Trump seriously when Potus promised to bring back their jobs; never mind that other sources of energy are cleaner and that even if the mines were re-opened, automation would put most West Virginians out of work.

A few state that Trump’s billions do not alienate him from the working class: “He has billions and he can help us become successful.”  As for Hillary Clinton, while at least one subject suggests that she has committed treason “and the penalty for treason is death,” others simply hate her, believing that all she cares about are money and power (unlike Trump, presumably).

Surprisingly the issues of abortion and gay rights are not mentioned at all, giving viewers the impression that they are minor considerations that do not concern them one way or another.  However it must be pointed out that Stern does not interview many evangelicals but rather salt-of-the-earth people who worry only about jobs and immigration and resent people who are given welfare though they do not contribute to society.

Throughout, director Stern does not fade back as the invisible interviewer but appears in every scene, sometimes rolling his eyes for our benefit, sometimes seeming on the verge of tears.  He never lets on, though, that he is anything but a blank slate, a neutral observer.

Behind the lens, Kevin Ford captures sides of the American topography that are only casually known by urban dwellers, while Rose Corr and Kevin Ford at the editing machines keep the film moving at a brisk pace.  A rapid-fire introduction to the movie hones in on previous presidential campaigns, as far back at Teddy Roosevelt’s and with celluloid given to Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, JFK, Barack Obama and Trump.  Though people who follow politics may find nothing new in the commentary, James Stern allows us to get at least hints of the over-all personalities of the subjects.  Democrats in the audience might be expected to guffaw at some of (what they consider) unsophisticated, xenophobic and outlandish comments such as the bit about Hillary’s being guilty of treason.  Audience members on the right will doubtless be motivated to don their red baseball caps and continue to see that America is being made great again.  Sequel! Sequel! Sequel!

Rated R.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – A-