The Front Runner—It’s hard to say at what audience this movie has been aimed. Younger people may well have no idea who Gary Hart is, and for his supporters back in 1988, the episode that ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President may seem painful and embarrassing and best forgotten. Shadenfreude–seeking opponents of Hart or of his party are unlikely to form a very large audience bloc either.
But the movie, directed by Jason Reitman from a script he wrote with Matt Bai and Jay Carson (from Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out), is a solid, absorbing piece of cinema craft, and shouldn’t be allowed to fall through the cracks of the season. It depicts, arguably, the end of an era in the relationship between the media and politicians and candidates, and the beginning of another.
For those who don’t know or have let it slip their minds: The Kansas-born Hart, an intelligent, handsome, commandingly no-nonsense senator from Colorado, found himself in the title position for the Democratic nomination in 1988. He looked like a cinch to be the candidate and to have a real shot against George H.W. Bush for the presidency.
Hart’s marriage had been troubled in ways that would seem quite routine to most of us today, but which were still a little less publicly acceptable—though probably no less privately common—for a politician thirty years ago, and there were rumors that he was a womanizer. The Miami Herald got wind of Hart’s connection with a young woman named Donna Rice. Partly on the strength of Hart’s defiant challenge to the Washington Post to tail him if they suspected hanky-panky—he assured them they’d be bored—the Herald broke the long journalistic tradition of discretion on such matters and went with the story.
Hart tried to stonewall the media after the story broke, insisting that it was nobody’s business. The rest is…well, you know.
Reitman spins the yarn in a brisk manner, with Altmanesque overheard and overlapping dialogue, and some near-Wellesian camera flourishes that bring order to the chaos of the campaign trail or the newsroom. There’s a large cast of characters, of which we get to know, more than in passing, only a few, but all of which have the feel of authenticity.
The Front Runner gains its integrity, however, from Hugh Jackman, who has the courage to make Hart an unlikable man. Had he played the title character as a martyr, the movie might come across disingenuous; because he plays him as an obtuse, defensive cold fish it becomes possible, paradoxically, to have some sympathy for him. It’s certainly possibly to have sympathy for Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, wry as ever), his wearily illusion-free wife, Lee Hart, superbly played by Vera Farmiga, and for the other women in the story, including Sarah Paxton as Rice.
The movie’s pace and comic edge should make it exhilarating, but there’s a sad, even ominous tone that hangs over The Front Runner, because whether or not Hart deserved what he got, the story marks the beginning of a turn for the worse in American mainstream media. I was living in D.C. at the time of this scandal, and I well remember what people said: They agreed that a candidate’s personal life ought to be private, but that this didn’t excuse Hart’s dishonesty and phony indignation.
Hart might have made an excellent president, and obviously he was hardly the only politician, on ether side of the aisle, with this sort of baggage. He got clobbered, probably, by a combination of his own demeanor and the beginning of a new style of anything-goes reporting, under which by now his story would seem quaint.