The Front Runner, the latest film from Jason Reitman, covers the 1987 presidential campaign of US Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) as he and his team clash with the news media over a scandal. Central to the story are the issues of media overreach, privacy, and patriarchal structures, culminating in one question: should the private misdeeds of a presidential candidate be scrutinised by the press? While buoyed by a marvellous cast and decent plot, the film ultimately suffers in its message. It makes no potent argument on the complex issues it brings up. In short, The Front Runner is an entertaining film, but one you couldn’t care less about as the credits began to roll.
Reitman sets the scene in 1987, on the campaign trail of the Democratic front runner, Gary Hart. Hart is widely expected to win the primary and then the presidency; he is a young, intelligent, and charismatic two-term Senator. But Hart’s perfect candidacy is upended when rumours of an affair begin to swell around him. A journalist for the Miami Herald gets a tip that Hart is having an affair, and tails the alleged mistress to Hart’s townhouse in D.C. He publishes an article describing the affair, which Hart vehemently denies and admonishes the author for undermining journalistic integrity. For the rest of the film, the audience gets a close look at Hart’s campaign staff attempting to protect his reputation, Hart defending his own privacy, reporters conflicted on the ethical ramifications of investigating his private life, and the women involved in the story, steamrolled by the aforementioned interests.
The Front Runner takes on relevant and complex topics, but refuses to explore them in depth or offer any sensible conclusion. It flips between the sides on the most superficial level of these issues, in increasingly repetitive scenes. It doesn’t help that the film hastily introduces a large cast of forgettable characters with perhaps ten minutes of screen time each. Notably, Hart’s campaign manager Billy Dixon (J. K. Simmons) and Hart’s wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) seem to have complex storylines crammed into a few short scenes.
In spite of these issues, the film does not entirely fall flat. It keeps a refreshing pace for the most part, has enjoyable cinematography, and features a stellar cast who perform admirably with unsatisfactory material. Jackman in particular anchors the film incredibly well, keeping audiences engaged.
The film attempts to be relevant in this era of #MeToo, presidential ethics, and scrutiny of the media. However, as it does not examine these issues deeply enough or make a compelling argument, The Front Runner comes off ultimately lackluster. For these reasons, the film will fade from our collective memory as readily as its protagonist.
Image: Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr.