I was transfixed by the Gary Hart movie The Front Runner: It has a lot of levels, and it’s a failure on every one of them. Mistake gets piled atop error atop cliché atop banality. It’s a skyscraper of wrong, an hour-and-53-minute lesson in how not to make a movie.
Vigorously borrowing from The Candidate, Nashville, and The West Wing, The Front Runner covers the three weeks of Colorado Senator Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, which ended in humiliation shortly after reporters staking out his D.C. apartment discovered a mistress, who turned out to be Donna Rice. Watching the co-writer and director Jason Reitman repeatedly frame reporters as intrusive, presumptuous, and cynical as they take down an arrogant, philandering politician by uncovering true information about him, I marveled at the maladroitness of Reitman’s timing. This movie wishes it had been made in 1999. It would have raked in the accolades if it had served as an oblique commentary on the investigation into Bill Clinton’s White House affair. Alas, today is a different era.
Playing Hart, a sort of kumbaya peacenik liberal who was essentially George McGovern with better hair (and had been McG’s campaign manager) is Hugh Jackman, who completely misses what made Hart an exciting political figure. Hart was young and handsome — as handsome as Jackman, maybe more so — with a terrific smile and youthful dynamism. All of this was carefully modeled on Jack Kennedy, right down to the way Hart used to place his hand in his jacket pocket. But Jackman’s Hart, who smiles about as much as Wolverine, plays the senator as an unappealing, grumpy, short-tempered policy wonk who hates campaigning. Reitman’s notion of awesome mastery of arcana is the series of platitudes Hart spouts: Improve education! Take care of the environment! Our cities are crumbling, but Reagan is blowing our money on nukes! As for specific ideas, just about the only one we hear is that Hart wants to invite Mikhail Gorbachev to his inauguration.
Despite his many credits (Juno, Up in the Air), Reitman makes the rookie mistake of failing to show why we should care about Hart. Instead, in a woeful script co-written with a political reporter (Matt Bai, who wrote the book on which the movie is based) and a Democratic campaign manager (Jay Carson), Reitman has another character (his campaign manager, played by J. K. Simmons) tell us how brilliant Hart is.
Reitman borrows from the surface of Nashville (using overlapping dialogue and a wandering camera) and tries to achieve a West Wing effect via fast-paced irreverent banter among the journos and handlers, but if Aaron Sorkin’s main flaw is that everyone is impossibly witty, Reitman and Co. somehow come up with something equally impossible: No one is witty, ever, whether in Hart’s office or in America’s newsrooms. When a Miami Herald reporter says a drug runner dumped a Volkswagen-sized load of cocaine in the ocean, an editor fires back, “Like a Volkswagen? Not like a Honda?” and we’re all supposed to laugh like it’s a quip worthy of The Front Page. As Walter Mondale once said of Hart, where’s the beef? (And here I’ll just pause to note that Hart was so weak, he was steamrollered by Walter Mondale, in 1984.)
Reitman cops to modeling his film after The Candidate, which was considered the cutting edge of cynicism in 1972 but today seems naïve. Robert Redford, as a sort of Jerry Brown idealist, spends the movie saying, in essence: Can you believe I have to cut my hair, hire image consultants, and tack to the center if I want to win elective office? Jackman’s Hart rails against People magazine for demanding three hours for a photo shoot and, on a trip to his hometown in Kansas, gives a bloodless stump speech instead of talking about what home means to him. We keep hearing how he’s the next president, but nothing in the movie shows this. Reitman’s idea of a moment that illustrates his awesome appeal is when Hart (pretentiously) hands a reporter a copy of a Tolstoy novel.
Apart from his movie-star aura, Hart seems at least as inept at politics as the guy who would win the nomination he seeks, Mike Dukakis. After a single week of campaigning, his soul is so bruised, he needs a vacation. So he heads to Florida. Where he meets Rice. We can’t hear what they say to each other because Reitman doesn’t care. He has the music turned up loud on the yacht where they meet — the Monkey Business.
If you were hoping the movie would explore the Rice-Hart relationship, forget it: They barely appear onscreen together. Instead, Reitman wags his finger at the whirring cameras and pestering reporters. His characters react as though having to answer questions or walk past a line of journalists is the equivalent of landing on Omaha Beach, and we’re meant to believe that this is all new and a result of tabloid TV shows like A Current Affair having just hit the air. Reitman confesses he had barely even heard of Gary Hart until he happened across a podcast a few years ago, and his lack of political depth is evident. In reality, the sensationalist, gossip-mongering press is as old as the Republic.
Hart keeps saying (and Reitman agrees) that his personal life is nobody’s business but, sorry, that isn’t the way it works. Run for president and scrutiny will follow — and should. The press ought to be antagonistic, though it should be nonpartisan — and isn’t. Reporters in the film are well aware Hart has been cheating on his wife, but it pains them to ask him about it. His response is finally to quit the presidential race rather than submit to any more humiliation, giving a denunciatory exit speech that Reitman thinks is a proper scolding of the press but is actually a near-rerun of Richard Nixon’s (supposed) last press conference in 1962.
Hart first entered the national stage as a “Watergate baby,” one of the fresh faces who vowed to bring new ethical standards to Washington immediately after Nixon’s resignation, but such ironies are lost on Reitman, who is simply in over his head. It’s equally amusing that just as Hart was about to be exposed as a philanderer by the Miami Herald, he snapped to a Washington Post reporter who was making the most delicate inquiries about the senator’s well-known womanizing, “Follow me around, I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very, bored.” For all of Hart’s supposed Kennedyesque qualities, this turned out to be the only memorable thing he ever said.
Reitman, who grew up surrounded by celebrities (his father directed Ghostbusters) shares the loathing for pesky journalists that prevails in Hollywood, and it never occurs to him that reporting facts about public figures is actually what journalists are supposed to be doing. Hart wasn’t undone by scurrilous rumors. He was simply forced to reckon with the truth. When he did so, he did it badly.