Hollywood’s interests are not the same as your own. Some swimming-pool-lounging, Prius-owning rocket scientist thought that The Front Runner, a truth-based drama about Colorado senator Gary Hart’s reckless extramarital affair with Donna Rice (which ruined his chances as a Democratic-party presidential nominee in 1984), would be perfectly timed to this year’s midterm election. The misbegotten movie opened nationwide in theaters yesterday.
Director Jason Reitman (who, at age 30, directed Juno, the teenage pro-life tease that some conservatives believed represented their values) now confounds partisan expectations with this paean to Hart as an early victim of the wolfpack press. Reitman looks back to the feeding frenzy that exposed Hart as it spread from the Miami Herald to the Washington Post; his dour imagery thereby casts a skeptical light on contemporary media’s seeming partisanship. The media’s hypocrisy matched Hart’s. While making the film, Reitman could not have anticipated the media-facilitated character assassination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but by emphasizing the rapacious, holier-than-thou attitude shown by political journalists, he spotlights an ongoing immoral cultural tendency.
Less intelligent than last spring’s Chappaquiddick, The Front Runner conflates its moral lesson with party sanctimony. It takes the same pandering, political stance as Juno and is similarly sexually jejune, especially about the protagonist’s self-destructive priapic compulsion. The film’s tone of ambiguous, wounded heroism emulates All the President’s Men, congratulating us for being politically sophisticated in order to seduce us with its shameless manipulation.
In Reitman’s naïve Millennial view, everyone is compromised; only the younger generation is honestly appalled by the audacity of professional politicians and hack journalists. The film’s most clear-sighted moment shows Hart’s reckless public confrontation with the Miami Herald editor (Kevin Pollak as Bob Martindale) at a fundraising dinner; the journo weakly defends “the essential correctness of our story.” Reitman’s reveal of such cunning never rises above Hollywood’s own disingenuousness.
Hugh Jackman is miscast as Hart, as if Reitman thought he was transferring Marvel Comics’ Logan to the Beltway. Jackman wears a terribly muffed Robert Redford toupee, perhaps one more homage to All the President’s Men, mistaking somber for suspenseful. Also miscast is Alfred Molina as a gnomish Ben Bradlee. Vera Farmiga, as Hart’s long-suffering wife, is among the anonymous, bitter Hart supporters, but her heartbreak is not nearly so nuanced as Barbara Harris’s memorably aggrieved wife in The Seduction of Joe Tynan.
Reitman’s political folly is that he’s caught between past history and current ambivalence, though I’m guessing at his leftist sympathies and inescapable chagrin. He doesn’t find that sweet spot of human observation that distinguished Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s Tanner ’88 TV series about the machinations surrounding a Hart-type politico. (Altman’s 2004 follow-up Tanner on Tanner was, possibly, even better.)
The only Altman-worthy characters are remorseful Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and A. J. (Mamoudou Athie), an ambitious Washington Post whistle-blower. They represent two sacred cows: a maltreated woman and a manipulated black man. Reitman’s sympathy for this politically correct bimbo and a stooge suggests some ambivalence toward the current citizenry exploited by politicians and media. Yet he misses the necessary satire of those self-deluding types and those self-justifying institutions.
The Front Runner isn’t morally penetrating, like Chappaquiddick, nor is it as offensive as Truth, the 60 Minutes scam biopic in 2014, but it still ends up as liberal Hollywood mush. It idealizes Hart as a Democratic pol (“He’s gifted at untangling politics so anyone can understand”) and then sentimentalizes media arrogance (“It’s up to us to hold these guys accountable”). Does Reitman really expect moviegoers to believe this nonsense? Now?