The Front Runner

 

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A political tale that invites us to consider wider issues.

 
Front Runner, The

Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart

 

This month sees the arrival in Britain of two American films that can be described as political dramas. That’s a category which doesn’t readily lend itself to commercial success here unless there is explosive subject matter as with Watergate or a famous figure at it centre (Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie Nixon). In the case of Vice due for release on 25th January, it has on its side Christian Bale’s triumph at the Golden Globes, but Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner faces a harder task. It is a film about the Democrat Gary Hart centred on the year 1987 when he hoped to be elected President and there will be many like myself for whom Hart is no more than a vaguely familiar name. However, the actor in this key role is Hugh Jackman whose standing following the commercial success of The Greatest Showman has never been higher.

 

The opening scenes of The Front Runner take place in 1984 when Hart lost out to Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination. This is hardly material that grabs the attention and even when we move forward to 1987 there is initially a sense that the film is not confident of making an impact. How else can one explain a music score which, be it through clapping, drumming or other repeated rhythms, seeks desperately to build up a feeling of high drama. But in the event the film soon settles down. It now becomes obvious that its appeal does not depend exclusively on the personal tale of how Gary Hart, once seen as ahead of the field in the 1988 presidential race, would within three weeks find that scandal had upturned his prospects.

 

This total change of fortune was due to the Miami Herald choosing to publish a story indicating that Hart, a married man and a father, had been having an affair. Should somebody running for high public office have his private life exposed in this way, and to what extent does immoral behaviour of this kind become a valid reason for a politician to be regarded as no longer fit to serve? Prior to 1987, the press had often played things down in this area, but thereafter celebrity exposés, both political and otherwise, would become increasingly frequent. Consequently, Hart’s story provides an opportunity for the viewer to ponder these issues afresh and that gives The Front Runner wider resonances way beyond its American period setting.

 

Hugh Jackman is on good form here and there is an able supporting cast headed by J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina and Mamoudou Athie. However, the narrative is such that Vera Farmiga and Kaitlyn Dever cast as Hart's wife and daughter respectively are somewhat sidelined. Fairly or not the screenplay turns Hart's story into a chance to chastise the press and the commercial pressures that make the papers seek headline stories at the expense of privacy. In consequence much of the time The Front Runner shows Hart sympathetically as a victim and only late on does it start to question his judgment and to bring out the impact of his behaviour on his family (it's almost as though #MeToo erupted during the making of the film and affected its ultimate content). In the event what we get in a rather long movie is less a balanced consideration of the issues than a lack of clear focus, but that's no great weakness given that the film invites us to draw our own conclusions.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Josh Brener, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper, Chris Coy, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak, Kaitlyn Dever, Steve Zissis, Molly Ephraim, John Bedford Lloyd, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge, Spencer Garrett, Toby Huss, Mark O'Brien.

 

Dir Jason Reitman, Pro Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook and Aaron L.Gilbert, Screenplay Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Jason Reitman, from Matt Bai's book All the Truth Is Out, Ph Eric Steelberg, Pro Des Steve Saklad, Ed Stefan Grube, Music Rob Simonsen, Costumes Danny Glicker.

 

Columbia Pictures/Stage 6 Films/Bron Studios/A Right of Way-Sony Pictures.
113 mins. USA/Canada. 2018. Rel: 11 January 2019. Cert. 15.