The Front Runner: An awkwardly 'woke' perspective on a game-changing '80s political sex scandal

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner follows three weeks in 1987 when Democratic senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) launched his presidential bid. A brief pre-credits scene covers the aftermath of his 1984 bid for the Democratic leadership, which he narrowly lost to Walter Mondale

This time would be different: Hart had the charisma, the hair, the “vision thing” and youth momentum after eight years of Ronald Reagan. 

Then came an overnight cruise from Miami to Bimini,  a young woman named Donna Rice, and the whole house of cards came tumbling down, leaving Hart, who is now in his eighties, as a punchline for the rest of his career. 

Jackman as Gary Hart: Where’s the charisma?

Jackman as Gary Hart: Where’s the charisma?

The movie is, for the most part, a well-packaged middle-brow piece of entertainment, attempting to grapple with complex issues about media and democracy.  Much attention is paid to the whirl of campaign meetings,  a spectrum of different points of view in  hotel and bar-room debates as campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) oversees the team of idealistic young campaign workers.  

We see cynical rumpled middle-aged journalists in white shirts and ties (Kevin Pollak, Alfred Molina) drinking and eating (a lot of eating) and debating. There’s a fictional African-American Washington Post reporter named A.J. Parker played by Mamoudou Athie, (a conflation of the New York Times’ E.J. Dionne and The Washington Post’s Peter Taylor) who serves as the media conscience of the film; you know, the one who wonders if we’ve taken this too far. 

Vintage television footage is cleverly edited into the drama, so there’s a young Ted Koppel or Chris Wallace commenting on, or apparently conducting interviews, with the onscreen actors. 

For dynamic contrast, we have scenes take us to Hart’s mountain top introduction to his “campaign of ideas” Meanwhile, family scenes in his tranquil Colorado log home with wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga) make the candidate and his wife look like models in an L.L. Bean commercial.  

As the scandal unfolds, the well-timed dramatic beats alternate between hectic media scrums, speeches and raw intimate moments. The dialogue is always just a bit too on-the-nose and articulate sensitivities that seem too up-to-date.  Donna Rice, played by Sara Paxton, in a raccoon mask of teary mascara, is portrayed as an intelligent and abused young woman treated as bimbo trash by a masculine media and political culture. 

Painful conversations, by phone or in person, remind us of what a good actress Farmiga is. In a morning scene, after the revelation of the Rice affair has broken, we see her grinding coffee, and the look on her face suggests she would prefer to be grinding up her husband’s bones.

Within conventional expectations, Jackman’s performance is the movie’s weak point. His subdued, oddly uncharismatic performance of Hart as a man of big vision when writing or making speeches (anti-nuke, pro-environment), undermined by his innate sense of integrity (reluctance to do photo shoots, a staunch belief in the separation of private and public life). Well, yes, a couple of times he may have slept with people he wasn’t married to (the movie doesn’t say definitively if he slept with Rice). But why does the public need to know about his private life?  

Otherwise, my only quibble with the movie is that it’s fundamentally wrong on the issues it addresses.  Behind it is a thesis of a sort, inspired by Matt Bai’s 2014 book, written with Hart’s co-operation, All the Truth is Out.  Until that time, the unwritten rule in politics was that a politician’s sexual behaviour was off-limits if he (it was always a “he”) remained reasonably discrete.  

Reporters kept secrets. As the movie notes, Hart actually slept on Bob Woodward’s couch during one of his marriage separations. When that changed, the thesis goes, the press contaminated the political process. As Bai wrote: “the finest political journalists of a generation surrendered all at once to the idea that politics had become another form of celebrity-driven entertainment… “ 

The trouble is, there’s an abundance of evidence, from contemporary coverage and historical perspective, that Hart was a self-deluding, risk-taking compulsive womanizer who was fated to fall.  (This month’s The Atlantic has a story claiming the entire Monkey Business expose was a setup by the late Republican dirty tricks operative, Lee Atwater.)  

And the blame-the-media bias alters the facts in the drama in dubious ways. For example, the stakeout of Hart’s Washington townhouse by Miami Herald reporters was planned before the publication of Hart’s infamous “Follow me around, I don’t care,” comment to E.J. Dionne of The New York Times magazine. In the movie version, the ashamed, bumbling Miami Herald reporter uses the quote for invading Hart’s privacy. 

The movie also suggests that because The Herald was given less access than the more prestigious Washington Post, the Miami paper had an axe to grind. 

At the film’s end, with his resignation speech, Hart’s words seem intended to predictive, when he says the climate of trial by press will lead to the worst candidates: “I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.” 

Two thoughts came to mind. One, he sounds disturbingly like Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at his senate hearing, using blustering indignation to avoid honest explanation. Secondly, in 2016, the media’s great fault was definitely not that they paid too much attention to the flawed personal life of the front-running presidential candidate.  

The Front Runner. Directed by Jason Reitman. Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak and Alfred Molina. Now playing at select theatres including Toronto’s Varsity and Canada Square.