Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, Sara Paxon
Directed by: Jason Reitman (“Tully”)
Written by: Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), Jay Carson (debut), Matt Bai (debut)
It’s almost laughable to think that only 30 years ago, an entire political campaign for a U.S. presidential hopeful collapsed under the weight of a sordid extramarital affair. In comparison to the numerous sexual misconduct allegations raised about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 — not to mention his countless public gaffes that would’ve destroyed any other candidate’s chances of making it to the White House — the unfaithfulness of Colorado Senator Gary Hart feels like such a trivial issue.
In “The Front Runner,” however, Academy Award-nominated writer/director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) does his best to make Hart’s narrative resonate for audiences that can see the parallels between his indiscretions in the late 1980s and the bad behavior men from all industries have been called out for since the start of the #MeToo movement last year. It’s not heavy-handed from this aspect, but the similarities are recognizable for those who consume news on, at least, a semi-regular basis.
Reitman, who has been in a slump these last five years with less-than-stellar contributions like “Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children,” delivers a sufficient look behind the scenes of a campaign spiraling out of control, although much of it is surface-level drama that fails to get into the heads of its main characters. It’s especially true of Hart (Hugh Jackman), who spends most of the film’s run time playing defense against accusations and blaming reporters for their salacious coverage.
As Hart, Jackman is genuinely believable in his role as a confident politician who is “talented at untangling the bullshit of politics” and becomes the front runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination. Hart was known for his resistance to answering questions about his personal life, so when the Miami Herald ran an article on an affair he was allegedly involved in, he quickly became a punchline for Johnny Carson and would later be written into the history books as the embodiment of political scandal.
“The Front Runner” is a captivating story but would’ve benefited from the script giving audiences a more meaningful insight into how Hart’s infidelity affected the lives of everyone around him — specifically his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga), campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) and young lover Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). In her couple of scenes, Paxton gets closer than anyone in capturing the magnitude of Hart’s selfish actions.
Like all politicians, “The Front Runner” is flawed. But Reitman offers up a compelling enough glimpse from the campaign trail and shows that, no matter in what era, journalists will always be there to hold people in power accountable — even if that means forcing them to air out their dirty laundry.