The Front Runner looks like it couldn’t be more timely. A movie about a political scandal from the past can illuminate truths about the way we live now, and it’s why films like The Post and Chappaquiddick were recently so well received. The Front Runner is not as good as those films. Frankly, I’m not sure why it exists and why it is being put in front of audiences right now.
In 1988, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Everyone was sure he was going to get it, and eventually become president of the United States. But at the tail end of his campaign, a story broke about his affair with campaign staffer Donna Rice (Sara Paxton.) We follow Hart’s political team and also the lives of the reporters who broke this story.
On one level, this film is looking at this event and saying, ‘remember how quaint political scandals used to be?’ And it’s a decent point because the news cycle in 2018 is so exhausting and soul-crushing that nothing is really surprising anymore. But on another level, the reporters seem like lecherous busybodies who need to be put in their place. Do we really need a movie right now that is basically telling the media to mind its own business? While the movie doesn’t exactly side with Hart and his behavior, he’s certainly more sympathetic and the reporters are portrayed as these nuisances and profoundly foolish people that must be stopped. This is, at the very least, problematic, and at most, a damaging message.
I’ve liked almost all of Jason Reitman’s films. Even Men, Women & Children. This is ineffectively and awkwardly directed. The camera looks over everyone’s shoulders and tries to be a fly on the wall of whatever angle of the event it’s examining, and while this might work in a political satire like In the Loop or Veep, here it just seems glib and manipulative. Reitman co-wrote the script with political strategist Jay Carson and journalist Matt Bai, who penned the film’s source material. You would think there would be more political truths here, but very little feels authentic.
Even an actor as viscerally talented as Hugh Jackman feels woefully miscast in this mess of a film. He’s wearing an awful wig and giving these big, screeching-to-the-back-of-the-house monologues, and, while it’s meant to feel powerful, it feels pat and forced. Vera Farmiga is very good, however, as the wife. Her husband’s affair doesn’t bother her, the only thing she told him when he went into politics was “don’t embarrass me.” And he did. JK Simmons is good, but he’s always good. Other actors fail to make an impression.
As emotionally charged as The Front Runner is, it’s odd how uninvolving and detached this approach is. Reitman is a director who knows how to make emotional and timely films, but this is neither. Maybe his only good movies are those he makes with Diablo Cody. For a movie that seems like it could easily tie into what’s going on right now in the world of politics, this film has very little insight to offer and ultimately has very little to say. Ultimately it’s a film about how journalistic integrity was squandered in the discovery of the tabloid. And I ask again, why in the world are we seeing this movie right now?