'The Front Runner' charts implosion of Gary Hart campaign
Posted November 6, 2018 9:13 a.m. EST
(CNN) — "The Front Runner" captures what turned out to be pivotal moment in politics and media, zeroing in on the moment when the look-the-other-way mentality about candidates' personal indiscretions forever changed. At its core, too, is how that shift torpedoed the 1988 presidential run by Gary Hart, played with convincing indignation by Hugh Jackman.
"A lot can happen in three weeks," the film notes at the outset, proceeding to chronicle the rapid downfall of Hart's candidacy, after he was exposed cavorting on a yacht with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). It was, it's noted, not the first time he had strayed from his wife (Vera Farmiga), including separations in the past.
What's different, this time, is that Hart is running for president, and -- in a moment of pique -- suggests to a reporter that he'd be bored if he followed him around. Eager to make its mark on the campaign, the Miami Herald seizes on the comment to justify staking out Hart's townhouse, creating a problem that Hart is slow to recognize or acknowledge, snapping "How is it relevant?" when the issue of infidelity arises.
Director Jason Reitman (who co-wrote the script with Jay Carson and reporter Matt Bai, based on the latter's book) provides a lot of inside-baseball looks at both the Hart team and the newsrooms covering it. That includes Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) -- who reminiscences about ignoring John F. Kennedy's marital transgressions, only to be reminded that it's a "different time."
There's also Hart campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, as always, terrific), who struggles to convey the magnitude of what's unfolding to his wonky, policy-oriented boss, who insists on waging a "campaign of ideas," already prone to resist the photo ops and family blather that, an aide notes, isn't in his "comfort zone."
"I don't think this is going to blow over," Dixon tells him.
Slow going at first, "The Front Runner" derives much of its power from being considered within a wider context -- specifically, the allegations and admissions that confronted subsequent candidates, among them Bill Clinton four years later and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the California gubernatorial race. Hart's people cling to the notion that much of the public thinks the media has overstepped its bounds, but that doesn't prevent his fumbling response from creating a media whirlwind that essentially swallows him whole.
Jackman sheds his claws and dancing shoes to create a sharp portrait of a man whose intelligence and political savvy suffers from a sizable blind spot when it comes to the questions suddenly dogging him. There's one particularly good scene in which Hart watches Johnny Carson mock him during "The Tonight Show" monologue, providing a clear illustration of how quickly he went from presidential contender to punchline.
Well cast in even the smaller roles, "The Front Runner" feels fairly narrow in its appeal -- calibrated (down to its Election Day release) to reach an audience that sucks up enough cable news to putty in the gaps.
Still, between the timeliness of the subject matter, Jackman's anchoring presence and "The West Wing" style peek behind the political curtain, it's an understated film with enough smarts, unlike its protagonist, to overcome its shortcomings and deliver a winning ticket.
"The Front Runner" premieres Nov. 6 in select U.S. theaters and expands to wide release Nov. 21. It's rated R.