THE FRONT RUNNER. Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons, Sara Paxton, Alfred Molina. Directed by Jason Reitman. 113 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
Gary Hart was a man of great ambition, at one point considered the clear favourite to become the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and a strong chance to become the President of the United States. According to ‘The Front Runner’, Hart’s greatest gift was his ability to make the arcane art of politics and ramifications of complex policymaking easily accessible to the modern voter. This film tries to do the same for the extra-marital affair scandal that erupted around Hart in 1987, torpedoing his campaign. It’s as ambitious as Hart himself, with a bold, Altman-esque approach to its camerawork and sound mixing, but it doesn’t quite pull it off, let down by a lacklustre lead performance and some underwritten key roles.
The opening shot makes a strong statement, with a long take that moves smoothly around a media village that’s been established outside the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination campaign base of Colorado senator Gary Hart. The voices of those that flit in and out of frame are layered together into a rich tapestry, filling in gaps in the story so far and telling viewers that they might have to work to keep up. It transpires that Hart is scheduled to concede the nomination to the former VP Walter Mondale. Undeterred by this narrow defeat and later galvanised by Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, Hart decides to run again in four years’ time with his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) by his side.
We cut to 1987, with Hart the clear front runner in the race for the Democratic nomination and favoured to go on to the Presidency. His campaign manager, political strategist Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) is busy marshalling dozens of workers and hundreds of volunteers. There’s a bustling sense of purpose about the place, which Hart elevates to mythic destiny through his eventual running announcement, orchestrated to take place in early April at the foot of the majestic Rocky Mountains. It’s in Hart’s interactions with young, idealistic Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) that you get a sense of his personability and true belief in his country. Their rapport is intimate and genuine, with Hart even giving reading recommendations to this impressionable guy who looks up to and evidently believes in him. It makes it that much harder, then, when it’s AJ that asks whether Hart considers his marriage to Lee “traditional” (there are some murmurs about his infidelities) – the ensuing anger, in which Hart challenges the reporter to follow him around to verify that nothing fishy is going on, ultimately leads to his downfall.
Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), a Miami Herald reporter, fields an anonymous call from a woman claiming that her friend is having an affair with Hart. When Fiedler reads Hart’s challenge in the Post, he takes the tip to his bosses at the paper, and they send a small team to camp out at Hart’s apartment. While there, Fiedler and his colleagues witness a young blonde entering the house and not emerging for some time. Their photos and reporting of this revelation set off a chain of events that lead to the collapse of Hart’s campaign and an irrevocable shift in their country’s approach to politics.
The film takes a reasonably objective approach to the events that it depicts, never excusing nor condemning Hart’s actions or those of the reporters that tailed him. It gives the drama and the arguments that are passionately mounted on both sides space to breathe, and the audience a chance to form their own judgements. It’s a commendable strategy, as it gives Jackman and the rest of the cast room to play and move.
Sadly though, stuck under a dreadful, straw-like wig, Jackman never really manages to convince as Hart. He strives to dig up an indignant rage at his treatment by the media (and one only need to look at Jackman’s performances as Wolverine to be convinced that he can do rage), but it doesn’t really build from anywhere, nor is it sympathetic enough to register an emotional weight. Here is a man that was unfaithful to wife (and it’s strongly implied to be a habit, despite only really digging into the one instance with Donna) and is more frustrated by the media’s attention than his own shortcomings, yet Jackman doesn’t seem to understand Hart and make him work on film. What’s more, the women in the film are frustratingly underwritten, particularly Sara Paxton as Donna Rice, the woman with whom Hart was witnessed by reporters. This is the case too for Lee, and as the usually excellent Vera Farmiga lacks chemistry with Jackman, she really fades into the background of what should really be her story.
The film takes a real and fascinating moment in American history – arguably one that changed politics forever and is more relevant now than ever considering the most recent Presidential election – and presents it with a laudable fairness to those involved. Stylistically, it’s bold and challenging, as one might expect from the filmmaker behind 2009’s awards hit ‘Up in the Air’. However, it just doesn’t reach the heights that these factors suggest. Ironically, on paper, this film would probably have been a strong front runner in the current awards season, but it doesn’t stick the landing.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 31.