Review: The Front Runner (2019) – The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner

The tale of Gary Hart isn’t a surprising one, the downfall of a politician involved in a sex scandal is something most of us are familiar with but in 1988 this kind of thing just didn’t happen. The matters of state didn’t require its leaders to be perfect, in fact many before Hart had dalliances with women while actually in the White House. In fact news of these trysts were never disclosed until years later. What makes The Front Runner and the tale of Hart so important, and by extension, entertaining is that this behaviour that we belittled and chastised Hart for is happening now and once again, we are turning a blind eye.

The Front Runner tells the story of Hart (Hugh Jackman) and his three week campaign for president in 1988 where most counted him as the favourite to succeed Ronald Reagan. However over the course of three weeks his campaign was bogged by scandal that he was having an extramarital affair when reporters followed him to his home after a tip from an anonymous source. While support for him wavered, he also faced his own campaign staff whose trust and loyalty hung in the balance.

When watching Jason Reitman’s latest film one word comes to mind more than any other and that is hypocrisy. Secrets and lies are part of politics, we all know it but here more than ever they infect every line of dialogue. People never say what they mean and while Hart is trying to bury his embarrassment, his campaign staff are hiding disappointment behind meaningless indignation. The political machine we know so well is given life here, for the first time and while this is about Hart, the Trump allegories write themselves.

In fact Hart’s marriage to his wife Lee (A criminally underused Vera Farmiga) feels more like an arrangement than an actual bond. Her acceptance of his activities lead to present day comparisons but also highlight the hypocrisy of being ashamed of Gary when he is caught. In fact she is more offended he got caught than in what he was actually doing. The film wants us to side with her but its hard to support a women who invited this to happen in the first place. Her indignation ultimately amounts to nothing as it is meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Lee is just one of the many characters in the Front Runner however that Reitman wants us to give a damn about while giving us little reason to. Everyone on Harts campaign is out for themselves even if they tell themselves they aren’t. When staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) chastises Hart for his lack of care for the well being of Donna Rice(a terrific Sara Paxton), the women he openly sacrificed to the media, her words come across as hollow because she does the exact same thing not twenty minutes earlier. Much like his previous film, Thank You For Smoking, Reitman expects more from his characters and when they don’t live up to it he shines a spotlight on it.

Shot and styled to be a grainy callback to yesteryear and the mentalities that go with it, Gary Hart is a man born to the wrong time. Considered a progressive the films signature style shows a man keeping up with the intellectual demands of his station but a man unwilling to change his ethics for anyone as he considers them infallible. Jackman plays this stubbornness as a strength and Reitman breaks him down through clever cuts and extreme close ups designed to make it seem like the walls are closing in on him, because they are.

The problem with this character study Reitman seems to be instigating is that it tries to build drama by cutting to the other side of the coin, the newspapers struggling with the idea of becoming a tabloid, of telling the news they never wanted to tell. Its all well and good learning more about this moment in history but the film doesn’t benefit from it, if anything it proves detrimental. The investigation into Hart by the Miami Herald feels more like a history lesson, a piece of homework you have to get through before your mum will let you watch TV.

Hidden within the film though are some cracking performances by Jackman, Farmiga, JK Simmons, Paxton and Ephraim but they get bogged down in making a political point instead of entertaining. Reitman wants to say something about morality but he ends up saying more about how privacy and trust are in the past. This fast paced cautionary tale speeds through Harts downfall but it never once takes a moment to say whether he might have been the right man for the job. In showing why a country cast him aside, he does the same and The Front Runner falls behind.


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