If one could point to the moment where American politics turned into the scandal machine and media feeding frenzy it is today, the new movie “The Front Runner” argues, it was when former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart told a Washington Post reporter, “Follow me around. Put a tail on me. I’m sure you’ll be bored.”
Director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Juno,” “Tully”) tells the story of how Hart’s 1988 presidential bid, seemingly a sure thing for the Kennedy-esque Democrat, evaporated over the course of three weeks. The reason was a convergence of factors: A feckless candidate who thought his personal life was off-limits, a press corps realizing the rules setting those limits were changing rapidly, and a campaign staff struggling to keep up.
The screenplay — by Reitman, first-timer Jay Carson, and journalist Matt Bai (on whose book, “All the Truth Is Out,” the movie is based) — presents Hart, played by Hugh Jackman, as a serious policy wonk who vows to run a campaign like any other. He cringes at attempts by his staff to show the “up close and personal” side, of himself or his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga).
Hart’s campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), labors intensely to make Hart’s goal of a serious-minded campaign a reality. Reitman shows the rough-and-tumble of a fledgling campaign, where the phones barely work and eager volunteers eat pizza and get organized, with the layering and long takes of a Robert Altman movie.
Reitman applies a similar wide angle to the press. The movie takes us into the Washington Post’s meetings, where young reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) struggles with what’s relevant and what’s gossip — while the old hand, Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), remembers the old days when JFK’s mistresses were not discussed in the news pages. Meanwhile, Miami Herald political reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) isn’t sure what to do about a hot tip, involving a young woman and a boat called Monkey Business.
Reitman doesn’t suggest bad guys or good guys here — though he does depict the media as a slavering mob when the scandal over that woman, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), explodes. Reitman gives us moments to empathize with Dixon trying to keep a lid on things, his aide Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) fearing for Rice’s scandal-tarred future, and reporters like Parker and Fiedler just trying to get the truth.
The movie gives much empathy to Lee Hart, who admits that she “has made accommodations” to her husband’s womanizing ways before this incident. Farmiga gives a tough, moving performance that gets under the public facade to show Lee refusing to play the victim to her husband’s bad judgment.
If there’s something missing in “The Front Runner,” it’s a full picture of Gary Hart himself. It’s hard to fault Jackman, who has the senator’s mannerisms and even his political mantras down pat. The fault probably lies with Hart himself, for leaving Reitman & Co. little public introspection or self-flagellation on which to build an inner life of a movie character.
‘The Front Runner’
Opened November 7 in select cities; opening Wednesday, November 21, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for language including some sexual references. Running time: 113 minutes.