David’s Review: THE FRONT RUNNER

David Reddish
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Director Jason Reitman continues his return to form with The Front Runner, his new political drama based on the Gary Hart-Donna Rice affair. Reitman, who’s career took a steep nosedive both commercially and critically with Labor Day, enjoyed a newfound success earlier this year with Tully, a comedy written by Diablo Cody starring Charlize Theron. Nothing in The Front Runner comes close to the daring of that story, though Reitman may believe otherwise. In so doing, he sets himself up for even greater blowback than he’s yet experienced.

Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), the post-hippie, articulate Senator from Colorado appeared a lock for the Democratic Presidential Nomination back in 1988. Hart seemed the shot of adrenaline the party needed as it entered the post-Reagan era, which had seen an erosion of party principles and a landslide loss in the 1984 election. Hart energized young people, ruled the debate stage, and had no problem drumming up donations, particularly from the liberal Hollywood crowd. At home, he had a beautiful family and longtime marriage to his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). On paper, he seemed exactly the kind of New Democrat destined for greatness.

What complicated matters, Reitman seems to argue in The Front Runner, was that Hart was a man ahead of his time, at least in the sexual sense. He has no problem loving his daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), even when she more or less admits she’s a lesbian. Hart and Lee also have a longtime open marriage, which nobody seems to anticipate could cause a problem on the campaign stage. That changes when an anonymous tip to the Miami Herald suggests Hart has engaged in an affair with a sometime model/actress named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Reitman, along with writers Jay Carson and Matt Bai, make clear the Herald’s motivation: it’s a slow news day. Nobody at the paper much cares about Hart’s sex life, and in fact, several longtime reporters and newspaper men (Alfred Molina, Kevin Pollack, and Spencer Garratt, as Bob Woodward) reflect that in campaigns past the papers have purposely omitted any tawdry details about the sex lives of politicians. Sexual libertine Hart just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, the Herald runs its story, and Hart finds himself embattled to defend his private life amid photographers hiding in bushes and attacking him at every campaign stop. Rice, too, gets mired in the media circus until Hart staffer Irene Kelly (a sensitive Molly Ephraim) manages to get Rice into hiding…and help her concoct a cover-story.

Throughout the film, Reitman shows off his directorial bravura, beginning with an impressive opening tracking shot reminiscent of The Player. He also primes his actors, beginning with Jackman, into complex performances. Much as he did in Up in the Air, Reitman puts Farmiga to fantastic use–she has the most moving role in the film, even with modest screen time. He also guides Mamoudou Athie, as reporter A.J. Parker (based on legendary columnist E.J. Dionne), into the film’s most layered character. Parker, who helps break the story, obviously resents himself for creating a frenzy over a rumored affair. Still, he has to pay his rent, and given the choice between Hart and home, he picks the latter. All of this makes for very entertaining drama, even if The Front Runner never indulges in the wicked humor that made political films like Primary Colors so captivating.

Reitman does try to play provocateur though, and seems to want The Front Runner to spark a conversation about sexual politics. Here, he tips his hand a bit too much. In real life, Rice and Hart always denied having any affair, and subsequent investigation by the Miami Herald and New York Times fingered Rice’s friend, designer Dana Weems, as the original tipster. The Front Runner, however, disregards these facts in favor of more salacious implications. The film suggests Rice herself, not Weems, leaked the story in a fit of drunken frustration with Hart. As for the character Rice, the film portrays her as something of a bubble-headed bimbo that insists she’s actually smart, but is easily manipulated by Hart and his campaign. The movie neglects to mention Rice’s work at a pharmaceutical company at the time of the scandal, or her subsequent philanthropy as an activist to protect children from pornography on the internet.. Reitman portrays the professional women in the film–reporters, campaign staffers–as manipulative, vindictive man-haters who attack Hart as a sexual predator for having a consensual affair. Rice too, despite her insisting that she graduated from college with honors (which she did), seems more like a wavering dullard rather than a smart woman who mare or may not have had an affair with a man in power. These omissions and implications support a certain underlying message of the film, tantamount to a denunciation of the #MeToo movement. Hart, by contrast, comes off as a victim: a transcendental leader condemned by an undeserving American public.  In his final scene, Hart paraphrases Thomas Jefferson’s anxieties that one day the American people will have a leader they deserve. That final statement has obvious implications for contemporary America’s political climate.

Reitman though seems to regard the Hart scandal as a result of a news media obsessed with creating entertainment rather than reporting facts, and of weak and angry women bent on punishing men as predators. Here The Front Runner makes its colossal mistake: minor changes for dramatic effect come hand-in-hand with movie making, though not when the movie wants to make a larger point about sexual politics. For that reason, the film doesn’t work as a commentary on #MeToo, indictment of the media, or acceptable dramatization of the Hart scandal. Still, the actors give their all, and Reitman presents his argument–however misbegotten–with polish and style. He may one day make a film that raises real questions about the role of gender and sex in politics. The Front Runner ain’t it.