The Front Runner is a frenetic and superficial account of a historic political downfall. In 1987, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart was the clear favorite to win the democratic party nomination for president. An infamous affair torpedoed his campaign. Based on Matt Bai's "All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid", The Front Runner attempts a behind the scenes look at a paradigm shift in media coverage. It nails the period look, but provides zero insight into the characters or their motivations. The Front Runner is utterly devoid of depth.
Hugh Jackman stars as the likeable and photogenic Gary Hart. He launches his presidential campaign with the same team that supported him on a previous run. J.K. Simmons co-stars as Bill Dixon, his longtime friend and campaign manager. Vera Farmiga plays Lee Hart, his stand-by-your-man wife. Hart enters the race with the wind at his back. The media showers him with adulation.
Gary Hart's luck changes rapidly on a fundraising trip to Miami. He encounters a beautiful blonde pharmaceutical rep, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). The press had inklings about the status of Hart's marriage, but respected his privacy. Everything changes when the Miami Herald is given a tip about Donna Rice. Hart's carefully manicured image is thrust into a harsh spotlight.
The Front Runner is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman. His previous films (Up in the Air, Tully) were insightful and personal explorations of flawed protagonists. Reitman's take on Gary Hart is stunningly shallow. We see the background mechanics that propelled Hart, but only get surface time about the man. He was an adulterer who got caught. That's obvious from the first fifteen minutes of the film. What inspired him to be a politician? Why were the people around him so enamored? Hart is essentially a prop in his own story.
The Front Runner's supporting characters theatrics involve the media's change of discretion. The good old boys club of reporters and politicians had let infidelity slide. The film talks up Kennedy's and Johnson's known dalliances. The eighties were a whole different ball game. The Front Runner posits the frenzy over Hart's affair triggered the current search for sleaze. The answer is simple and not remotely complex. Media outlets grew, became more competitive. Women stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. The Front Runner treats Donna Rice and Lee Hart like spurned pets. They are the sobbing afterthoughts to a promising man's demise.
Hugh Jackman's performance is the only bright spot. He pulls off the swaggering demeanor, then caught in the cookie jar guilt. Jackman's dialogue addresses Hart's dilemma. It says nothing about the character beyond his umbrage at being outed. That's a shame. Gary Hart must have had an infectious personality to garner such support.
From Columbia Pictures, The Front Runner is a disappointing effort from Jason Reitman. It's all style and little substance, a Gary Hart masquerade. Hugh Jackman's star power adds a smidgen of gravitas. Thankfully he doesn't burst into song.