Review: The Front Runner

Pardon me if I initially confused Gary Hart with John Edwards. Though the two presidential candidates’ respective career-destroying sex scandals happened almost two decades apart, they tend to blur together in my mind. All those WASPy Democrats look alike, I guess.

However, the distinction is importnat, or, at least it is from director Jason Reitman’s point of view. Reitman and his co-scenarists, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, clearly believe Hart was railroaded by an overzealous press for an indiscretion that didn’t amount to much even in terms of the sex. The promotional campaign for The Front Runner wants you to see the “timeliness” of the film in the age of Trump, when sex scandals count for nothing any more. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), as the film’s trailer puts it, “changed American politics forever” by essentially martyring himself on the altar of principled adulthood. After that, Bill Clinton could get away with a lot, and though John Edwards didn’t, it’s mainly because he knocked someone up and didn’t have the moxie to hire a team that could play it down effectively enough. And forget about Trump.

Too cynical? The scenario is only convincing up to a point, and given how determinedly Reitman tries to ram it home, it feels forced and a bit tired. Much footage and production values are expended to prove the titular label: Hart barely lost to Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and definitely, according to the film, had a more progressive and rational platform. He was thus perfectly positioned to win the nomination in 1988 after eight years of Reaganomics and right wing shrillness. The Colorado senator has it all, the smart stand on issues, the charisma, and, most importantly, the looks.

How this freight train of political inevitability gets derailed is told in a sketchy and not altogether convincing manner, but it is told with passion, which should count for something. As it happens, Hart separated from his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), for part of the campaign due mainly to her exhaustion. After all, she’d essentially been doing it for more than four years. Then two reporters for the Miami Herald, portrayed as dogs on the trail of a raccoon, reveal that a campaign worker, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), had spent an evening and maybe the night at his single-guy apartment on the road. From there, the rest of the press, including the Washington Post, whose respected editor, Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), at one point fondly remembers the days when reporters respected Jack Kennedy’s indiscretions, piles on with lots of innuendo that snowballs in the face of Hart’s intransigence. The problem for the viewer is that, despite Reitman’s demonization of the Fourth Estate, it’s difficult to get a bead on Hart. He’s definitely irresponsible for getting himself in this mess, but is he actually guilty? The fact that Reitman confuses the matter by insisting it’s nobody’s business doesn’t get to the heart of the movie’s point—Was Hart actually unfaithful and were he and his wife on the outs anyway? Of course, life is messy, but the movie is so adamant about taking Hart’s side that it gives the impression it’s playing fast and loose with history. It’s exciting and utterly frustrating at the same time.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Front Runner home page in Japanese.

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