Directed by: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 113 point margin minutes
Sometimes reality hands you stories better than the realm of fiction can. Gary Warren Hart was a Democratic United States Senator from Colorado, who was the front-runner in the 1988 Presidential election until personal circumstances forced his hand into suspending his campaign. Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner tells this story of the president that never was, or wasn’t quite, and shines a light on one of the more interesting modern scandals post-Watergate.
Hugh Jackman stars in the central role as Gary Hart. The physical resemblance is not exact, but convincing enough. You never forget that you are looking at Hugh Jackman and not backwards through time. But there are worse choices to embody Hart, both in terms of physicality and in terms of his mannerisms and acting choices.
Jackman has played Americans, a Frenchman, Canadian mutants, and the Duke of Albany. It’s not so much that he jumps into the role of a Rocky Mountain American from the United States’s heartland that is impressive. It’s Jackman’s poise and deliberation within the role of Hart. He stirs up all that Jackman charm and fires it out of his Hart with more maturity than someone might expect. Jackman has delivered some powerhouse performances before. His role in the titular Logan is one that I have particularly praised. Now in his fifties, Jackman is only a couple of years younger than Hart when he ran. Being charming is one thing many men learn young, but being charming on your feet is a fairly hard role for a leading man, especially in a rehearsed performance. Aaron Eckhart, who played the relentless Nick Naylor in Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking (2005) is one of those actors who seems to be able to do it, and Jackman is another. Reitman seems to specialise in helping actors present themselves this way on screen.
The best performance of the film comes from J.K. Simmons, who has been fantastic in almost everything he’s done for a long while now. Simmons plays a campaign manager whose old school values clash with the direction of modern campaigns as its characters embrace an impending new millennium. Simmons, who is equally talented at portraying himself as harmless and loveable or as a juggernaut of hegemonic masculinity, finds a way to wed elements of these extremes together. He somehow manages to be a man of personal principle and a mentor to those without them.
A potential problem when basing your films on well-publicised real events is that the desire to embellish can erode the historicity of your mission. The Front Runner wisely avoids that, with events seeming to run very close to how they were reported. This may make it unpalatable for some, as it somewhat subverts the expectations a filmgoer conditioned to usual film structures and dynamics might have. But for those who prefer films that follow the beats of life, it is refreshing to see very human solutions to the very human problems that proliferate even in the highest state offices.
Reitman does not seem too interested in probing the issues that Hart’s campaign faces. There is some peeking behind the curtain in regards to how campaign managers act, or how and what the media decides what to print, but it is nowhere near as analytical and thorough with this as, say, a season of The Wire. That’s not the goal of this film, which is more interested in the very superficial way surfaces can be disturbed and separate a man from “the most respected office in the world” (debatable). That we never find out too much about what makes Hart, the flawed human male, tick is inconsequential to the fact that he is a flawed human male. That the mere suggestion could still rock people’s perceptions of a candidate mere terms before we’d get Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and the desacralisation of conservative nuclear family values, provided me enough thought leaving the cinema. I don’t mind the mere existence of Hart’s scandals themselves being the death knell in his campaign. It’s particularly topical as the issue of the integrity of many politicians can be avoided by simply decrying “fake news” to any documented wrongdoing. I think that is a point Reitman is quietly trying to raise, as opposed to really trying to pry. Hopefully filmgoers that see The Front Runner come away thinking about their own values, and how they interact with the values of others, and just how important appearances are in regards to their potential representatives.
The most interesting thing about Hart is that he brought himself down. He set the standard high for himself, and was charming enough that people honestly believed in him. That can be the compromising difference between letting someone down, betraying them, or becoming President of the United States. Hart answered so many questions honestly that when he gets a well-meaning one he finds the need to avoid, it shatters the entire perception of him as the improbable man people were, unfairly and unrealistically, waiting for. Perception can be reality, and unfortunately what Mark Twain said about reputations is true. “Give a man the reputation of being an early riser, and he can sleep ‘til noon.” Sadly, if you condition people to have high expectations from you, then they notice when you can’t deliver.
There are some poignant scenes in The Front Runner that say a lot more than probing ones could. Awkward conversations between husbands and wives, campaign managers sipping a drink as they see their hard work go to waste: Reitman expects you to be able to mine more out of awkward silences than dramatic monologues about feelings and exactly what it means to have hopes and dreams go up in smoke.
The Front Runner is worth watching for people who are interested in this little facet of United States political history, people who admire great performances, or appreciate Reitman’s films. Reitman seems to be fascinated with men whose personal satisfaction in life is wrapped up in their profession and ability to influence. For those interested in examining these personalities, you’ll be able to find something to nourish you here.