REVIEW – Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner”: Flawed Political Hopes, Even More Flawed Political Film

By Joe Hammerschmidt

As far as political elections go, this year’s midterms may have left a ripple effect that hopefully will send the right message to Washington moving forward. Yet after having been reminded just how chaotic election cycles of the past thanks to director Jason Reitman, that sense of cautious optimism should possibly be put into question. Quickly following up his Twilight Zone-esque tale of nanny trust, the spring delight Tully, his latest, The Front Runner marks another expansion of his craft, stepping past comic strengths to pull a Robert Altman and go more biographical. The subject: doomed presidential candidate Gary Hart, portrayed with absolute precision by the increasingly versatile Hugh Jackman. The plotline: just as doomed, overstretching thinly veiled elements to only tell so little of the Colorado senator’s journey to the White House, assuming Reagan’s seat should all have gone well. What it lacks in efficiently executing a convincing portrait of a figure wronged by the media, Jackman’s charisma does make up the difference. For a film of such lofty ideals and expectations, it wasn’t so much a disappointment as it was just a confusing mess that left me either wanting something more or something starkly rewritten.

Jackman portrays Hart as an overly confident political soothsayer, a very private man focused on his work, offering more cache to the character than the real Gary Hart ever could, picking up the pieces from his disastrous crash-and-burn following the ’84 Iowa caucuses. Flash forward to mid-1987, a bit off the mark in terms of timelines, and Hart is in the thick of building loyal supporters across the country, with much of the first act following the candidate, lead strategist and manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), wife Lee (Vera Farmiga), and the rest of their team attracting voters. And all this as the ravenous newspapers and magazines keep overly watchful tabs on the campaign’s every move like they were the only story that mattered. The rumors swirl too heavily over Hart’s personal life, with possible accusations of infidelity flooding many a daily. The Miami Herald takes first crack based on a half-hearted tip. Three junior reporters put Hart’s DC townhouse on stakeout to where they discover a young woman entering then leaving. From there, the politician’s troubles only seek to worsen in what turn out to be the final three weeks of his noble campaign.

I struggle to find much else to say about this film, which clearly plays better in its original form, an in-depth article written by former NYT Magazine columnist Matt Bai. Between Hart’s own inner demons, his desperation to straighten the awkward-facing ship that is his political future, and much of the media overinflating his ego to give readers something to fume at, there still isn’t much that Reitman’s direction can offer to the table. Limitations to the source material all too well equal to an overage of strain in the depth of clarity that can reshape Hart’s lion-esque legend status. Reitman makes the apparent choice to compensate his limited range of events to depict by needlessly hitting the brake pedal, marinating on the moments that can’t quite shine the brightest light on the man. If they were trying to merge the chest-puffing pride of The Post with the behind-the-scenes gladhanding of Altman’s Health or Tanner ’88, the mix is like seeing two completely separate films edited together to play as something partially cohesive. That being said, fingers crossed Stefan Grube won’t bungle the same way on his next editing project, the next war for the stars.

Front Runner is not as singular as one would prefer. Reitman’s just rolling with what seems most convenient per scene, ignoring any manner of consistent tone to just give Jackman an opportunity to act beyond proportion. Its inherent messiness does equally put into question whether it can successfully mirror any negative back and forth the legitimate media possesses versus government officials in 2018. It’s more bland pastiche as it is a schemingly clever satire, and when already riddled with inaccuracies (a move Reitman likely considered for artistic liberties), the sting only seeks to inflict further injury to idle insults. It’s kept strictly as a product for the decade it encapsulates, all done lazily. I gained a certain understanding for the political climate in the late 80s, but remove Jackman from the picture, and the only goodwill Reitman can hold is stolen away. He holds the cards for the film’s few cases of raw tension, only when the time seems right to pull a straight flush. Simmons and Farmiga, as well as Last Man Standing standout Kaitlyn Dever as young Andrea Hart are especially buoyant in certain scenes, flatlining in others. Heck, even Alfred Molina would’ve stood to do more on behalf of the traditional media, portraying the brash then-Washington Post chief editor Ben Bradlee. Any time Molina’s on screen, with a character he’s clearly prepared for, there’s often not enough of him to go around.

Complete with a standard Rob Simonson score, not quite echoing the warmth he delivered in Love, Simon, and with Eric Steelburg’s fuzzy, faded light visuals that stay in line with most of Reitman’s prior films, there’s just little to find out of The Front Runner that one could’ve easily searched in a library in less time. While Jackman delivers a role adding to his unique range as an actor, certainly enough to assure him a likely Globe nomination (though not much else, I’m afraid), he struggles to provide much else for Gary Hart’s case as a doomed hero, apart from that usual charisma we’ve seen from the Aussie performer time and again. Whether or not viewers had lived through the trauma, that heartbreak, the overwhelming embarrassment for both campaigners and journalists, I, like many, will have walked out of the theater asking if the real world version was better than a painfully dramaticized exercise in overstretching the truth a bit too much. The honest answer: perhaps. (C)

The Front Runner opens in Seattle this weekend, Bellevue’s Cinemark Lincoln Square; wide break next Wednesday, 11/21; rated R for language including some sexual references; 113 minutes.