Jason Reitman Co-Writes And Directs One Of His Best Films On The Downfall Of Gary Hart During His 1988 Campaign, That Is Very Much Reflective Of Today’s Times. It’s Led By A Rock Solid Performance From Hugh Jackman.
The events of Jason Reitman’s (son of Ivan Reitman) new film “The Front Runner” may have taken place in 1988, but 31 years later it’s still very much relevant of what has been happening in the past two years in both Hollywood and politics. Where nothing is safe, not a joke you may have made, or any decision you make in your personal life, that from 10-20 years prior can find it’s way of coming back to haunt you.
The year was 1988, as Vice President George H.W. Bush was running for President against Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. There was also Gary Hart, a idealistic, handsome and charismatic Senator from Colorado who had A-list friends such as actor and director Warren Beatty. He was bold, handsome, and wicked smart, and he was at just the right age where he could connect with voters of any age. He was favored to be the nominee for the Democratic Party in the 1988 Presidential race. He was “The Front Runner” to win the race. Hart was seen as a throwback to President John F. Kennedy. However, that comparison proved to be all too accurate when news of his philandering hit the press. The allegations for Hart proved to be his undoing, and Reitman’s film tracks the three-week period that saw his political kingdom crumble.
Gary Hart was a rock star while other politicians were seen as stodgy, doddering old suits. Hart was everywhere, and everyone was talking about him. “The Front Runner” is more than just the story of Gary Hart’s fall from grace. It takes us back to a time, when the press was less interested in a politician’s personal life. All of that changed with Senator Gary Hart.
The chaos started when a reporter at the Miami Herald got a phone call from a woman claiming her friend Donna Rice was having an affair with Hart and that it all started aboard a yacht called ‘Monkey Business’. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter (“Unicorn Store” star Mamoudou Athie, doing excellent work) also gets a hold of the news and asks Hart straight on about his previous separations from his wife Lee (played by Vera Farmiga) and the current state of his marriage. Hart explodes and says, “Follow me around, I don’t care. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored”. An invitation Hart shouldn’t have given.
Once news breaks of the scandal, in typical media fashion everyone wants in on the story. One of them being famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) who initially dismisses talk of covering the womanizing by Gary Hart. Bradlee tells his team a story about Lyndon Johnson meeting privately with White House reporters shortly after becoming president. As Johnson said: “You’re going to see a lot of women coming and going, I expect you to show me the same discretion you showed Jack [Kennedy].”
While Reitman knows that the scandal was serious stuff, he also has elements of pure farce. As when two reporters from the Miami Herald stake out Hart’s townhouse and mark the comings and goings of a young female guest, without realizing until much later that there was also a back entrance, so the assumptions they were making were just that. Assumptions. Nevertheless, they ran with the story and from their lives were changed and damaged.
While the film is obviously about Hart, it’s also about the moment when media had changed and began the evolution into what it is today. Adapting from a book by co-screenwriter Matt Bai, “House Of Cards” writer Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman. “The Front Runner” is also about the media’s rapid move into what was perceived to be tabloid journalism at the time. The affair itself plays as just a chunk of the story. There is fascinating elements that happens around Hart, who carries himself with this stance of righteousness throughout, and dumbfounded that he’s become such a target.
Reitman captures the chaos within Hart’s campaign, as political strategists try to minimize the damage. Reitman expertly creates the messiness of a real campaign. Frustration with the affair and trying to save Hart and his campaign is mostly reflected by campaign manager, Bill Dixon (another superb performance by JK Simmons), who just can’t get the candidate to understand the gravity of the situation. Bill doesn’t think this will “blow over”, and he’s probably right.
The movie’s political DNA is a mix of Robert Redford’s “The Candidate” and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford classic “All the President’s Men”. It’s evidenced by the nostalgic grain in Eric Steelberg’s cinematography, and editor Stefan Grube’s focus on performances. Hugh Jackman is displaying a performance audiences will be surprised to see. As Jackman has made audiences fall in love with him either on Broadway, in musicals (“The Greatest Showman”), action films (“Swordfish”) or in the “X-Men” franchise, but his portrayal of Gary Hart is transformationally intriguing.
The eighties setting isn’t overdone (there is a nice nod with the eighties Columbia Pictures logo being used), nor is it over run with eighties tunes. The garish clothing of the era is used but not constantly. It looks more like a real version of the eighties than the nostalgia filled version we typically get in films. “The Front Runner” gives us an intriguing history lesson and a revealing look at how power and prestige is nothing if not fragile.
Reitman’s film never demonizes the media, even if they played a big part in his downfall. All of Hart’s allegations in having an affair and the outcome it had in destroying his career seems crazy, especially when you look at the President we currently have sitting in the White House who has had multiple adulterous affairs. We are living in an age where we all have a computer at our fingertips that leaves little margin for error, yet somehow we still elected a man who did far worse than Gary Hart ever did which makes “The Front Runner” a film that is right on time.
Reitman is a great filmmaker and his streak is still on fire. His comedic sensibility as a writer provides us with a witty, fast-paced and sharp dialogue in a snappy dramatization. I only wish I wasn’t late to the game in seeing this now.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)