Gary Hart, the senator whose affair during campaign season ushered in the era of gossip-driven political reporting, is the centerpiece of Jason Reitman’s new film, The Front Runner. Despite Hugh Jackman’s best efforts and general screen charisma, Gary Hart is the least interesting figure in his own story, and I’m especially not sure now is the time to be centering stories on powerful men who do whatever the f*ck they want with no regard to anyone else and then display zero empathy for the people they’ve hurt when they’re caught. The story is fascinating but Gary Hart is not, so the movie is boring and not really about anything.
Which is not to say it isn’t watchable. It is. The Front Runner is competently made on every level, and Hugh Jackman is always watchable, I just can’t pretend you’ll be all that engaged. Watching The Front Runner must be something like being Vera Farmiga starring in The Front Runner and waiting for something interesting to happen and just being constantly disappointed. Farmiga stars as Hart’s put-upon wife, Lee, one of several characters who would make a more interesting protagonist than Hart.
Had The Front Runner centered the story on the women, chiefly Lee Hart and Donna Rice, then it could be about something, it could have an opinion and not recite a timeline of events at us. One of the best scenes in the movie is Donna (Sarah Paxton) coming to grips with the destruction of her life once she and Hart are caught in their affair. Similarly compelling is Lee’s likewise realization when Hart informs her of the breaking news story about him and Donna. Imagine if this movie was about powerful men wrecking women’s days since time immemorial?
Or, if it’s just TOO MUCH to consider telling the story from the point of view of the women, then what about the press? The Gary Hart affair was the moment the media stopped covering for politicians and started exposing them (when convenient). Several times characters ponder this paradigm shift and wonder what it’s all about and why is it happening. These are good questions which go totally unanswered, even unexamined, in The Front Runner. The questions are asked but there is no follow-up, which is a shame because this another angle more interesting than just recreating the progression of events surrounding Hart. On one side you have the Washington Post, with Bob Woodward reminiscing about covering for JFK’s and Lyndon Johnson’s affairs. On the other side you have the Miami Herald and their beat reporters who can’t get face time with f*cking anyone and yet end up with the story of the year. Use these two newsrooms to examine the Changing Times.
The point is Gary Hart is a secondary character in his own story and a movie about a timeline isn’t interesting no matter how charming Hugh Jackman is or how many annoyed glances JK Simmons levels at people (and he levels many annoyed glances in this movie). The Front Runner needs to do something other than recreate a timeline because that is boring, and therefore The Front Runner is boring. There are ways to approach this story that are more engaging but they depend on considering for a moment that the powerful man isn’t actually that important and there are other perspectives worth considering. The Front Runner almost gets there with the press element, though ultimately it retreats back to Hart and his surety that gossip isn’t fit to print even when you’re running for president. Except it f-cking is, and the real story of The Front Runner isn’t what happened to Gary Hart it’s WHY that gossip was suddenly found to be newsworthy.