London Film Festival: The Front Runner

Writers: Matt Bai, Jason Carson and Jason Reitman

Director: Jason Reitman

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Personal indiscretions have the power to end political careers but that hasn’t always been the case. In the UK it was the Profumo affair of 1961 that permanently altered the relationship between the press and Parliament, while in America after Watergate in the 1970s corruption and deceit could hound a President out of office but it wasn’t really until 1987 that personal revelations of adultery become front page news, devastating the campaign of Senator Gary Hart in under three weeks.

Widely assumed to be the natural successor to Ronald Regan, Gary Hart is the front-runner in the 1987-88 Presidential race. Having narrowly lost out in 1984, it was widely assumed the Democratic nomination was his for the taking. But an indiscrete phone call to an alleged mistress is overhead by a journalist and soon Hart’s private life is in the spotlight. Determined that his personal affairs have no bearing on the campaign he vows to continue, but the Miami Herald has other ideas.

Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner has a huge moral complexity at its heart, asking questions about the right to privacy for public officials and the role of the media in determining whether a candidate is suitable for office. The debate rages through this time-limited film, taking place across just three weeks in 1987 which creates an engaging tension and focus to examine the issue from a variety of angles.

The audience initially sees Hart from the outside, a charming and attractive politician, clean-cut and Kennedy-eqsue, promising a bright new future for America while displaying his everyman credentials in a series of promo meetings in the Colorado mountains. He mixes easily and openly with journalists but fiercely bats away rumours about his marriage. In the second half of the film, Reitman shows us another side entirely, and as the story explodes, Hart becomes arrogant, and his judgement fails time and time again.

In a similar trajectory, the press pack appear to be doing their jobs, pursing a juicy lead that questions the behaviour of a leader preaching morality while using his position of power to lure young women. Often in such films, the worthy journalist gets their man, but showing the feeding frenzy that suddenly erupts as Hart’s wife and daughter are hounded, Reitman also asks important questions about the untempered and unelected freedom of the press to decide who should have power in society.

Hugh Jackman is fascinating as Hart, oozing good-guy charm in the early scenes and enjoying his easy ride. But suddenly he snaps when asked about his marriage and Jackman shows the coldness beneath the surface, a momentary flicker of the ruthlessness that every politician must have to become a party leader. From this point the audience sees his flaws, and while he may have a point about privacy his decision to embark on an affair mid-campaign and determination to conceal it mark out his essential dubiety.

The Front Runner also hints at the consequences for the vast campaign staff who fell with Hart including J.K. Simmons as the acerbic Bill Dixon, losing not just years of work but also their jobs. Vera Farmiga as Hart’s wife Andrea becomes a precursor to Hillary Clinton, the spouse who frequently looks the other way asking only to avoid public humiliation. As supposed mistress Donna Rice, Sara Paxton is suitably poleaxed by the entire affair, frustrated that her intelligence will be side-lined, portrayed as another “dumb blonde.”

Events do move quickly and as with the nature of the modern biopic, the audience is given only a snapshot of a life in a contained period from which we must draw conclusions about personality and approach.

There is little explanation of Hart’s history but The Front Runner gives a very interesting feel for the man Gary Hart was at a watershed moment in American political history. It all began with this, and Reitman’s movie has much to say about the here and now – a press corps that will stop at nothing to get the story and a President whose personal indiscretions couldn’t derail his campaign. Gary Hart might be right, maybe the voters really don’t care after all, but perhaps they should?

Release Date 14 October 2018 | Image: Sony Pictures

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Morally complex

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