Although the events take place more than 30 years ago, The Front Runner feels like it’s practically ripped from today’s headlines.
Given the current desensitized political climate, it’s fun to revisit the campaign scandal surrounding 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart, which feels like little more than a political footnote these days. However, despite a committed portrayal by Hugh Jackman in the title role, this muddled drama from director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) doesn’t offer much insight beneath the surface, especially when considered in a contemporary context.
For those needing a refresher, Hart was a Colorado senator who rose to prominence with a failed 1984 presidential bid, which propelled him to the top of the party’s wish list four years later.
Despite his intelligence and charisma, however, Hart’s hopes are derailed by a tabloid-style newspaper report about a possible extramarital affair centered on a supposed steamy rendezvous with young model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) about a Miami yacht named Monkey Business.
Although he dodges questions and denies any wrongdoing, the repercussions spiral out of control quickly, leaving Hart, his wife (Vera Farmiga), and his campaign chairman (J.K. Simmons) in damage-control mode.
Jackman might seem like a strange casting choice, but he’s convincing in more than just mimicking Hart’s speech and mannerisms.
The relatively even-handed screenplay embellishes some details while providing a straightforward chronicle of the escalation and aftermath of the scandal from various perspectives — inside both Hart’s campaign headquarters and newsrooms scrambling for a scoop. At least it finds the humor and absurdity in the situation rather than bogging down in political mechanics.
According to the film, the resulting fallout irreversibly changed the way political campaigns have been conducted and covered since, giving rise to media sensationalism that prioritizes lurid mudslinging and partisan bickering over genuine issues, all for the sake of readers and ratings. There’s some truth to that assertion, although the degree of its specific influence is debatable.
Likewise, it’s dubious to position Hart as a victim while relegating both his wife and his alleged mistress to the sidelines. When viewing his actions through today’s #MeToo lens, Hart comes off as another example of a sleazy male bureaucrat who abuses his power and influence.
Regardless of whether he deserves it, The Front Runner practically functions as a misguided Hart endorsement that comes three decades too late. Its emotional impact suffers as a result.