These days, a politician having an extramarital affair isn’t exactly the dealbreaker it was not all that long ago. No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, the fact is that in the past 25 years your party has successfully put a man into the Oval Office who was an alleged cheater. The press used to make a practice of keeping the extracurricular activities of politicians hidden, but you could argue that the media’s ink-stained wall of silence finally crumbled in 1988 when Gary Hart was running for president.
Hart’s meteoric rise to the national stage and his swift, sordid fall from grace is the story at the center of director Jason Reitman’s solid but slightly disappointing new film, The Front Runner, which premiered this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Hart’s journey from being a once-promising progressive Colorado senator and shoe-in for the Democratic nomination, bound to take on Ronald Reagan’s then-vice president, George H.W. Bush, may seem like old news to some, but it’s proof that the more things change the more they stay the same.
Hugh Jackman, underneath the thick, shaggy head of hair that no doubt helped turn Hart into a media darling, plays Hart, even if he doesn’t look much like him. Some will surely have a hard time in the first five minutes of the film, thinking that the resemblance between the star and the real-life politician isn’t very close. But that’s a challenge that’s been overcome before. After all, Anthony Hopkins pulled it off in Nixon, and John Travolta was great as the thinly veiled Bill Clinton of Primary Colors.
As the film starts, we see Jackman’s Hart conceding his run for the Democratic nomination in 1984 to Walter Mondale. But while Hart may have lost the battle, his campaign manager, Bill Dixon (played by a delightfully cranky J.K. Simmons), tells his strategists he’s won the war: After getting crushed by Reagan, Mondale’s career will be toast. Hart will then have 1988 sewn up. Jump ahead four years, and Hart is a man on a mission. It doesn’t hurt that he has charisma to burn, big ideas, and a gift for talking straight with both voters and the press. On a charisma scale with 1 being Wolverine and 10 being P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman, he’s at least an 8. Unfortunately, he also seems to have a wandering eye that will eventually get him into trouble.
Hart was not a man without ego. Nor was he a man without a seducer’s charm. He was a politician, after all. Combine those two things and you get something like what happened on the Monkey Business. The Monkey Business was a Miami-docked yacht on which Hart, a married man, took an ill-advised trip where he met a young woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). There isn’t a lot of backstory in The Front Runner about the reasons Hart was there in the first place, just that Hart and Rice hit it off and an affair began.
Jackman is one of those rare actors who not only can do just about anything, but he also has a gift in that he can sell you anything with a smile pressed on his face. Still, I’m not sure I ever really bought him as Hart, despite a few tremendous flashes of anger and hurt when his affair comes to light. I think that’s because the film’s writers (which in addition to Reitman include Matt Bai and Jay Carson) have turned him into one of the least interesting characters in his own film. The best moments in the movie more often than not have almost nothing to do with Hart at all, they revolve around the rat-a-tat, Aaron Sorkin-esque volleys of screwball dialogue dripping with arsenic sarcasm that come from Hart’s campaign staff and the press. The problem is, it’s sub-Sorkin Sorkin. And its occasional hints at the more enlightened #MeToo era of discourse in our lives now are too on-the-nose, and feel about as subtle as a jackhammer.
The strong and sprawling supporting cast — Alfred Molina, Molly Ephraim, Kevin Pollack, Alex Karpovsky, and Mamoudou Athie are standouts — gives the movie its snap, crackle, and pop, and its sharpest observations. But too often even that snap, crackle, and pop feels like it’s been sitting in a bowl of milk too long. As Hart’s long-suffering and publicly humiliated wife, Vera Farmiga does what she can with not very much. At least, not very much that we haven’t seen dozens of times before in movies and on TV. Kaitlyn Dever is equally appealing as Hart’s daughter, albeit with an even thinner part.
What The Front Runner seems to want to ask is whether Hart’s fall was the fault of Gary Hart, the press, or the rest of us who ate the sex scandal up. But it doesn’t answer that question with anything that feels nuanced, new, or particularly revelatory (Reitman lands on the press, by the way, who are mostly made to look like mouth-breathing stooges). There’s no denying that Hart was his own worst enemy — too proud, with too much self-regard, and too naïve about the ways in which America was changing (when, as a man running for president, he should have theoretically known better than anyone). But The Front Runner has a lot of sympathy for him. Maybe more than it should. Twenty years ago in Primary Colors, Mike Nichols tackled an almost identical topic, but his film had much more on its mind about the sausage-making realities of retail politics, the electoral process, and the early days of tabloid mania — and in much more granular detail — than this one does. Actually, here’s a suggestion: Watch that movie instead. C+