The Front Runner (Jason Reitman, 2018) 1 out of 4 stars.
As the 1988 United States presidential election loomed, former Colorado senator Gary Hart, following a close second-place finish to Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, looked like the man to beat for his party’s nomination in the upcoming cycle. Vigorous and handsome, he had a knack for making articulate policy decisions go down easy, usually with a wink and a smile. This was his race to lose, which he then promptly set out to do, courtesy of an outsize libido and an outdated view of what the press could and could not investigate. Before things even started rolling, he was out, and ultimately Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis got the nod, losing to George Herbert Walker Bush in the general election.
The details are sordid, involving a Miami-based model named Donna Rice and a whole lot of chutzpah on Hart’s part; they are sad, since for one brief shining moment so many young people put their hopes (and considerable efforts) in Hart’s chances; they are, potentially, the stuff of great drama, given the myriad ways the story could be spun. Sadly, the screenplay, co-written by director Jason Reitman (Tully), political strategist and policy consultant Jay Carson, and journalist Matt Bai (author of the nonfiction book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, on which the movie is based), takes all the facts, jumbles them together and then does very little. For a film about a promising politician undone by a sex scandal, this is about as dull as it gets. Worse, it has no point of view on the action. Things happen. So be it. That was history. Let’s move on.
Actually, intentionally or not (it’s so hard to tell), the filmmakers do offer at least one take on what went down, which is that the media went too far. Given that Hart was running for president and was simultaneously carrying on an affair with a woman not his wife while also campaigning with his wife by his side, then daring the press to dig into his marriage and prove that it wasn’t a perfect one, he kind of received his just desserts. And though we as a nation, lately, seem to have developed a penchant for snake-oil salesmen without any defined moral compass, what exactly is wrong about probing into candidates lives to make sure they are who they say they are? If that’s the sum total of an opinion out of this whole thirty-year-old political tragedy, then I say go back and write another draft.
Given the complete lack of focus at the top, there’s very little the actors can do to keep it interesting. Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman), as Hart, veers from wild grin to outrage to somnolence and back, all without misplacing a hair (at least they got that part right). It’s a manic performance without a center. Even worse, a fine actress like Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) is reduced to playing the long-suffering wife role (I’d like to see a moratorium on these, please), spending most of the movie looking bitter. There are occasional moments that work – a scene here and there – but overall this is a film that, like Hart, should never have sought the spotlight.