‘The Front Runner’ never gets to the heart of Hart’s story

The Front Runner (2018)

Directed by Jason Reitman

Director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”) thought he had another Oscar contender on his hands with “The Front Runner,” which documents the no good very bad week during the 1988 Presidential campaign when Gary Hart learned he had been accused of having an extramarital affair. Instead, what Reitman made was a perfectly fine political drama that can hardly be called bad…but during Oscar season must be considered, at least, disappointing. When a November/December release teems with the expectations of award-season contention, it sucks when the movie falls short. But “The Front Runner” cracks the Top 25 films of the year for me, out of the over 100 films I’ve seen so far. Not too shabby, unless you were counting on it cracking the Top 10.

Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner (2018)

Before the first votes were cast, the contenders for the Democratic nomination—a crowded field that included Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Joe Biden, and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (God help us)—crisscrossed the country drumming up support. But one man, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), had taken the early lead in polls. A mix of youthful energy, good looks, and a progressive platform (eliminating the gender pay gap, reining in our defense budget, focusing on the environment) propelled him to a sizable lead, until (and even, to an extent, after) a team of reporters accused him of having a young woman in his townhouse when he and his wife were separated.

Hugh Jackman is a capable actor, not immune to flawed performances (“Chappie”…ouch) but generally able to lift up even bad movies (“The Greatest Showman”) to be better than they ought to be. Here, he does a wonderful job of capturing Hart’s deer-in-the-headlights moment as it plays out. Hart handles the news not surprisingly—lashing out against reporters and apologizing profusely to family. But “The Front Runner” never gives the Hart family the time they need to work things out. Neither did the press in ’88, I suppose, but you have to assume Hart talked with his daughter at least once, right? Instead, we see him separate from his family, dealing with the situation as a PR nightmare, not necessarily a personal one. There are a couple of rushed exceptions, but generally we lack those raw moments that a plot like this one should’ve been rich with. But Jackman has no shortage of support. J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Kevin Pollak, and Mamoudou Athie (a name you will soon know, if you don’t already) help lend credibility to an already prestige Jason Reitman production.

All the pieces are there. That’s what I’m saying. Except, maybe the story of Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations being brought to a screeching halt by an allegation of infidelity (our current President has a child born from a mistress, and admissions and allegations of multiple other affairs) is a sore reminder that a good person making a bad decision couldn’t ascend to the White House but a bad person making hundreds of bad decisions could. Maybe the story is just not as shocking as it should be. Either way, something about “The Front Runner” kept it from being more than just a pretty good movie. But still, it’s a pretty good movie.


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