The Front Runner is proof that there’s nothing new under the sun. The film looks at a pivotal moment when politics and media crashed together to change the way we analyze political candidates personal lives and decisions forever. We still deal with political scandal today, much like the 1988 presidential run that crashed within a matter of weeks for Gary Hart, but this is when the idea of news media being a watchdog and covering candidates personal lives to ensure they match. We’ve seen bio drama films like this as well, but co-writer/director Jason Reitman gives us that old gum with a new way to chew it.
Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is a man of the people. He is charismatic, smart, handsome, and willing to take a stand against politics as usual. You know, the kind of stuff we like to see even today. All signs pointed to him being the frontrunner of the ’88 election before suggesting to a reporter that he’d be bored if he followed him around, and thus encouraging him to do so. Hart’s bluff is called, as the Miami Herald follows him and uncovers a scandal that ultimately ends Harts political run.
Reitman gives us an inside baseball look at the situation as things unfold. In fact, perspective is key in Reitman’s direction both in the script and in his frame. Numerous times throughout the film he tells two stories simultaneously so that you have to keep up. In one particular scene, Hart sits at a table in a wide shot with his back to the camera as it moves around capturing the conversation amongst Hart’s team. In the background you see a young reporter enter the room and begin a discussion with a member of Hart’s political team. Reitman’s ability to keep our mind engaged, while cleverly displaying multiple stories and pushing each scene forward is what makes the film fun to watch. We know the ending as we watch the story unfold in 2018, but getting there is probably as stimulating cinematically as it was to live through in 1988.
This is an ensemble film in which everyone brings their A game. Jackman, known for his ability to be a larger than life on screen presence, shows considerable controlled restraint and focus. He makes Hart, a player on the team, rather than the star in the film. In doing so, you can focus on all the angles and members of the cast. Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart doesn’t have a lot of screen time in comparison, but her presence is felt. In fact, in one confrontation scene between Gary and Lee, the atmosphere changing of her presence and what’s about to happen is so palpable that you feel as bad for Gary as when your sibling was about to get spanked back in the day. JK Simmons, Molly Ephraim, and Mamoudou Athie all have incredible character archs as they come to grips with Hart’s infidelity and what the fallout means to them. Each perspective gives the audience something to chew on.
The Front Runner may not appeal to mass audiences. It’s certainly a character study that allows viewers to draw conclusions on politics today, and a director’s masterclass on framing and technique. However, its undeniable timeless and timeliness of its subject matter is worth the view!