For those of us who lived through the debacle of the Gary Hart sex scandal, when the favorite to become the Democrats’ 1988 presidential nominee imploded after revelations of an extramarital affair, the wildest thing about Jason Reitman’s riveting anatomy-of-a-firestorm drama The Front Runner may well be its reminder of how short the whole thing lasted. “A lot can happen in three weeks,” an opening crawl informs us. But, really, the controversy itself unfolded over the course of about one week during the spring of 1987. That may not seem particularly quick in today’s age of hourly news cycles and daily Donald Trump outrages, and maybe it isn’t — but it was then. And yet I distinctly recall the excruciating drip-drip-drip of the Hart calamity. It might have been a lifetime.
For those whose memories don’t reach that far: U.S. Senator Hart (played here by Hugh Jackman) was the charismatic flameout from the 1984 Democratic primaries, an alt-Kennedy from Colorado with a progressive agenda and an ability to galvanize young voters who was widely favored to both clinch the 1988 nomination and win the presidency. But murmurings about adultery and a troubled marriage had dogged him, and as his campaign took off, the candidate, frustrated at questions about infidelity, brazenly invited the press to follow him around. Within days, the Miami Herald had a story up about Hart’s dalliances with a woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), and all hell broke loose.
But this is less a film about Gary Hart — who, as played by Jackman, remains something of an enigma — than one about the operatives and volunteers and journalists swirling around his candidacy. Reitman effectively captures the weird cadences of the scandal as it unfolded: the hectic efforts by the Herald and others to unravel Hart’s misdeeds, as well as the campaign’s efforts to stonewall and then manage the crisis. It makes for an intriguing combination of tones and rhythms — urgency running up against paralysis — that speaks to the twisted dynamism of our political process, then and now.
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The director has clearly studied his Robert Altman and Alan J. Pakula. Much as in Altman’s Tanner ’88, a semi-documentary comedy miniseries following a fictional candidate in that same 1988 presidential campaign, Reitman’s camera drifts and zooms among a variety of characters, catching snippets of conversations and other interactions before briefly glimpsing a dramatic moment occurring somewhere in the background. But the film also settles in at times for sober, noirish passages reminiscent of Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Reitman documents the struggle of veteran Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) to find an angle on a mundane political story for a newspaper more interested in cocaine busts and Disney World shenanigans, and A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), a young writer for the Washington Post trying to handle this sensational story while honoring his employer’s sense of institutional gravity. Hart’s people coddle the Post but ignore the Herald. Fiedler is on the outside looking in; Parker is on the inside, struggling to get perspective outside the establishment media bubble.
The Front Runner is at its best when showing the inner workings of the Hart campaign as it attempts to handle the revelations, especially when the candidate himself is so aloof and non-forthcoming. “I’ve never known a guy who was more talented at untangling the bullshit of politics,” says campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) of Hart. “And all anyone wants is to take a photo. He’ll never understand that.” Hart may have the “presence and idealism of a Kennedy,” we’re told, but he seems incapable of understanding the celebrity angle of running for president. Dixon sends different operatives to different parties to the scandal: a young Joe Trippi (Oliver Cooper) goes to help manage Hart’s wife (Vera Farmiga) and daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), while Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) goes to stay with Donna Rice.
These make for some of the film’s most human moments, and they get at the strange, unreal feeling of being a living, breathing person at the center of the media firestorm. Ephraim, in particular, is a revelation, playing a character who is a composite of multiple real-life individuals in the campaign. Spending time with Rice, she has to empathize with this beautiful, somewhat befuddled woman’s bizarre predicament while also trying to maintain her own fraying idealism, and we can see the agony in the actress’s eyes.
In some ways, her struggle is the movie’s own. Reitman recognizes the wasted opportunity of Hart’s progressive candidacy, as well as the cynicism that helped bring it down and would continue to plague American politics. But he also understands that the senator’s lack of transparency and grave sense of privilege made for an outdated and fundamentally corrosive approach to public life. These conflicting ideas cannot always be reconciled. And to its eternal credit, The Front Runner does not attempt to do so.