THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), which recounts the fateful three weeks where 1988 presidential front-runner Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) saw his chances for becoming president derailed by an extramarital affair, is at its best when asking questions that are still relevant today.
In 1984, Gary Hart finished second to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary, done in as shown in the movie during a debate where Mondale used the catchphrase from a popular Wendy’s commercial, saying that whenever he listened to Hart discuss his ideas, he felt he had to ask, “Where’s the beef?” I saw that debate in 1984, and the line worked. Mondale, of course, was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election.
So, in 1988, Hart emerged as the popular choice among Democrats, and early on was the clear front-runner.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a candidate who is all about ideas, and as described by his staff in the movie, his gift is that he can break down complicated ideas and help people understand them. It’s easy to see Hart as a successful U.S. president.
Hart also believed his private life was exactly that- private, and the press had no business knowing what went on in his bedroom. He felt so strongly about this that when pressed by reporters who continually hounded him due to rumors about extramarital affairs, he famously challenged them to follow him around, claiming they wouldn’t find anything, that he was a pretty boring guy.
The reporters did just that, and they photographed him with a woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) who obviously wasn’t his wife, and who appeared to stay the night with him. When more photos surfaced from unnamed sources, the firestorm which followed so engulfed Hart and his family that he found he had no choice but to withdraw from the election.
At the end of the movie, Hart makes a dramatic speech after his withdrawal, saying that the current climate of press hounds was only going to get worse, and it was no surprise that the best and the brightest avoided politics because of it, and if it didn’t change, worse candidates would emerge.
The screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and director Jason Reitman asks questions that we are still discussing today, and covers such topics as the role of the press, the expectations of a political leader, the way men treat women, and the effect of adultery. It’s a complex script that asks questions without providing answers, mostly because we are still searching for answers even today.
The press is shown doing its job diligently. The press pool reporters genuinely like Gary Hart and feel uncomfortable asking questions about his personal life, but yet, some of them feel obligated to persist. The press is also shown camped outside Hart’s home, not allowing his wife or daughter to leave in private. They’re aggressive and harassing. Yet, if the reporters hadn’t done their job, the story would not have come out.
In one conversation, veteran reporters relay the story of how Lyndon Johnson assembled all the White House reporters and told them lots of women would be coming in and out of his place, and he expected the same kind of discretion on their part which they had shown Jack Kennedy, and that’s what they did. These same reporters acknowledge that things are different in 1988, and they don’t understand why, but they know that it is different. If candidates are sleeping around, it’s now their job to expose them, because if they don’t some other news outlet will do it and earn better readership or ratings.
The women in the film, in 1988, did not have much of a voice, but they do express their outrage, upset that the male reporters aren’t angry with Hart over his treatment of women and that they aren’t being more aggressive to uncover the story.
In one of the better sequences in the movie, Hart staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) spends time with Donna Rice and empathizes with her plight. She later points out how alone Rice is, that after this, her life will never be the same, that she doesn’t have the massive staff of volunteers supporting her like Hart does, that her life in effect has been ruined by a simple affair, while Hart’s life will continue.
Regarding Gary Hart, he is not shown here as a man who blatantly disrespects women, with the exception, of course, of his wife, since he was being unfaithful to her. But he’s not making derogatory remarks about the female anatomy or sexually assaulting them. He simply doesn’t see that it’s anyone’s business what he does in the privacy of his bedroom, or nor does he believe that his affairs affect anyone else except himself and his family, most likely because for years this was how things worked.
He seemed to be oblivious to the hypocrisy of his statements on morality and his personal behavior.
Director Jason Reitman lets this story unfold naturally, and his camera allows the audience to follow things along as if they are part of the campaign. In fact, even though Hart is the main character, the many members of his staff and the press pool make up the bulk of this movie and pretty much move the story along.
The acting is fine throughout. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Gary Hart, and while he does capture the politician’s mannerisms, his performance is superior to a caricature. He makes Hart a very tragic figure. He means well, he has ideas that are poised to make the country a better place, and he’s in a position with a public that really likes him to win the election, and yet he seems to be stuck in a prior time where reporters let things slide. Had he paid more attention and realized the press was emerging into a different animal in 1988, he might have been able to save his campaign, and the country would have seen a President Hart, but that’s not what happened.
Of course, some may argue, that it’s a good thing that he didn’t become president because he’s a womanizer. Which is another question the movie addresses, which is, does this kind of behavior even matter? Do Americans care who presidents sleep with? These questions are still being asked and debated today.
Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife Lee, and she’s excellent as she always is. The scenes where she tells Hart in no uncertain terms how much he has hurt her and humiliated her are some of the strongest in the movie.
J.K. Simmons plays Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon, who firmly believes in Hart and sees him as the next president, but when these stories surface, he puts his foot down and tries to convince Hart that he needs to get out ahead of them, but Hart resists saying it’s no one’s business and that the American people care more about his ideas than his personal life. It’s an idealistic rationale that proved to be false. Dixon also makes things personal, saying that the huge staff of volunteers, many of whom have left jobs to help Hart, deserve the truth, as does Dixon himself, but again Hart resisted.
The rest of the cast is chock full of talented character actors playing campaign staff members and reporters.
I loved THE FRONT RUNNER. It’s blessed with a talented cast and director, and features a script that asks important questions about the role of the press, the responsibility of presidential candidates to the voters, whether or not the private life of public figures is fair game, the immorality of adultery, and the treatment of women by even the most well-meaning of men.
THE FRONT RUNNER has a lot to say about both an event that happened in 1988 and events that continue to play out today. It doesn’t really provide answers because it doesn’t appear that we have the answers yet. So the bigger question I suppose by film’s end is have we learned anything since 1988?
The answer seems to be a resounding “no.”