Despite a stellar cast and some good intentions, Jason Reitman's political drama about the rise of the tabloid age does a little too much finger-wagging in the wrong direction.
Watching the news can sometimes feel more like watching a drama than something informative. Headlines aim to create the maximum amount of drama to draw our eyeballs to the screen. While some argue this helps keep the populace informed by making the news engaging, others argue this cheapens journalism by turning serious topics into tawdry tabloid fare. In The Front Runner, director Jason Reitman sets out to examine one pivotal moment in media history that helped shape the way political news is today.
Based on the book All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the script), The Front Runner chronicles Colorado senator Gary Hart’s (Hugh Jackman) presidential run in the 1988 Democratic Primaries. Hart is a young, idealistic senator intent on running a completely issues-driven race. While his campaign staff Bill Dixon (an always wonderful J. K. Simmons) and Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) push him to be more personable, Hart refuses interviews and photo ops that focus on his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). However, Hart’s reach for the presidency ends a scant three weeks after it ends when a Miami Herald reporter uncovers an affair Hart is having with a young aspiring model from Miami named Donna (Sara Paxton). What follows is a scandal that unfolds in real time, The Front Runner depicting a seismic shift in the world of journalism, when mainstream publications started covering tabloid fare.
The Front Runner seems both timely and antiquated in equal measure. In the age of Trump, the idea that an affair would tank a politician’s career seems almost quaint; that said, The Front Runner indirectly argues that the Hart scandal represented is a turning point in the American journalistic landscape, when tabloids and the standard-bearers of news began to merge. There are multiple scenes where editorial boards wring their hands over whether to run the Hart story. In each instance, the editors effectively say, “we wouldn’t do this in the past, but we must now in order to stay competitive.” Washington Post journalists talk about how they would look the other way when former presidents had mistresses, only reporting on the issues. In scenes where Hart gives impassioned speeches on why his affair should be of no importance to the public, the camera focuses in on reporters, who seem almost dumbstruck. They appear admonished, shamed in what they have done: airing one man’s dirty laundry to the public when they should only care about the issues.
One could assume going into The Front Runner that Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Hart would steal the show – The Front Runner positions itself as an awards piece for Jackman, after all. While he does an admirable job, Hart’s character gives little for the viewer to latch onto. Many characters remark that Hart is an extremely guarded man who wants to maintain a level of privacy that seems unreasonable for a man running for president. As Hart, Jackson seems warm on the surface, but this kindness appears transactional. In one earlier scene, Hart talks the Washington Post reporter through the reporter’s fear of flying with great compassion and patience. But when this same reporter asks Hart about rumors of infidelity in a later scene, Hart goes off the rails in a rage against a man doing his job. When Hart sees Lee for the first time after the news of the affair breaks, he apologizes, but it seems more that he’s apologizing for the scandal than for breaching her trust. It seems obvious how Jackman’s Hart would be an appealing and energizing political candidate. As a private citizen, however, his warmth seems to only go skin deep.
While Jackson’s mannered performance is functional up to a point, the women surrounding Hart are The Front Runner’s real standouts. Farmiga plays Lee with a quiet, painful depth that’s deeply relatable. While hiding in her cabin from a mob of reporters, she plays the piano, every note giving voice to the emotional turmoil that she tries to hide from others. When she finally confronts her husband about the affair, Farmiga delivers a passionate monologue that spells out the ways in which the families of public figures must carry the burden of their scandals years to come.
The surprisingly tragic figure in this story, however, is Hart’s paramour Donna, a young model with political aspirations. When Dixon sits down to interview her after the story breaks, she tearfully tells him about her intellectual qualifications outside of being a model: “I did everything right so that men wouldn’t look at me the way you are looking at me now.” It’s heartbreaking to watch, and every scene that portrays her as a real person hoping to remain anonymous during the affair reminds the audience that the public will never see this side of her. They will see her the way she worked so hard not to be perceived.
As a film, The Front Runner is artful, well-paced and edited, with nuanced acting and a compelling story. As commentary, however, it only poses questions on the responsibility and tone of serious journalism, as well as the way women are harmed by public scandal far more than men without bringing greater insight to the answers. In Reitman’s treatment, the Hart scandal shouldn’t be newsworthy, but also takes abuses of sexual power between men and women seriously.
By narrowing the focus to Hart, his family and staff, and the journalists, we don’t see how the events impact American society as a whole. Had Reitman included this broader examination of the Hart scandal’s impact on the culture and our approach to journalism, its dual criticism of tabloid journalism and the way women are harmed more by an affair wouldn’t seem so incongruous.
In the final estimate, The Front Runner is a well-made, but misguided attempt to equivocate on the increasing tabloidization of political journalism, leaving out several vital pieces of the puzzle for the sake of giving its leads nice, juicy monologues about the vulture-like press. While we know the fates of Gary and Lee Hart (they’re still married, by the way), Donna’s fate is left unknown. It’s the fate of political mistresses since the beginning of time, turning them from a punchline to a footnote; The Front Runner makes no attempt to change that.
The Front Runner hits the campaign trail Friday, November 21st.