When was it exactly that politics went tabloid? Try 1988, when Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), a married Democratic senator from Colorado, thought the media buzz about his alleged affair with model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) could escape scrutiny as he ran for the White House. The press turned a blind eye to the sins of FDR, JFK and LBJ. Why not Hart? The Front Runner tells us why. Or tries to, at least.
Based on political reporter Matt Bai’s forensically thorough book All the Truth Is Out, the film is a commendably ambitious attempt by director/co-writer Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Tully) to throw audiences into the cacophonous circus of sexual politics and let them vote with their conscience. These days Hart tends to be remembered as the man who was set to succeed Ronald Reagan — and because he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants, we got George H.W. Bush. Was it as simplistic as that? Not really. In the script that Bai co-wrote with Reitman and former political consultant Jay Carson, myriad factors come into play. There’s more than a hint of hubris in Hart’s challenge to the press: “Follow me around, I don’t care.” When photos surfaced of the Man Who Would be President getting cozy with Rice on a yacht called Monkey Business, adultery became big news. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), who helped break the Watergate scandal, wasn’t going to let this one go.
Reitman’s critical attitude toward the press as sensation-hungry snoops finds its focus in the portrait of Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis), the Miami Herald reporter who broke the story and became a pioneer in “gotcha” journalism, ready to stakeout Hart at his home and hideaways. Washington Post journalist A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) takes the higher road until the story becomes too big to ignore. As a woman on the staff spells it out, Hart “is a man with power and opportunity. And that takes responsibility.”
Where is Hart in all this? The Front Runner sometimes loses him in the media swirl as the press decides it’s OK to let a candidate’s off-the-stump life overshadow his stand on affairs of state. Taking his cue from director Robert Altman, Reitman creates a tapestry of overlapping voices in offices, bars and hidden corners a la Nashville. There’s Hart trying to manage the war at home in Troublesome Gulch (the name is real) with his wife, Lee (the excellent Vera Farmiga), while his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, so good) calls in the troops for damage control. All the talk, talk, talk is cheekily entertaining, but it blurs the film’s intent to take a moral stand on immorality.
Reitman earns points for his empathetic treatment of Rice, who comes off as a pawn in a game not of her own making. It’s more troubling to deal with Hart’s claim that a political life should be protected against closed-door intrusion. That horse is out of the barn. And not even Jackman, one of the most persuasive actors around, can sell the argument that personal weakness doesn’t stain public character in the era of #MeToo.