TIFF 2018: The Front Runner Depicts a Politician who Pays for his Infidelities
Pity the politician whose purity of purpose is undone by a puerile media (and pardon the journalist’s alliteration). This seems to be the overarching belief of 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart (an excellent Hugh Jackman) in Jason Reitman‘s The Front Runner. Hart had the misfortune of running for the highest office in the land just as the media landscape was changing forever. He’d been in politics nearly two decades by then, as both a successful senator and as the campaign manager of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Hart was not only a telegenic, well-spoken pol, he was passionate, even gifted. He also had seen first hand how the “proper” news media left the private affairs (both literal and figurative) of politicians to the tabloids. So, when he found himself the front-runner of the 1988 presidential campaign, imagine his surprise when years of infidelity and one truly boneheaded decision during his campaign spelled disaster for his ambitions.
Reitman, who co-wrote the script with Matt Bai (whose book “All the Truth is Out” much of the material is gleaned from) and Jay Carson (a House of Cards alum, along with Bai), presented his star Jackman to the audience at TIFF by marveling at a performance that revealed almost, but not entirely, the make of the man. It’s true. Jackman’s turn as Hart is brilliant in what it conceals; the undeniable passion of the politician is evident enough, but the man who seems to believe that marriage is a malleable institution and his private life is off limits is unreachable. Jackman’s Hart is at turns impressive, charming (no more so than when he soothes Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker—a terrific Mamoudou Athie—through some turbulence on a plane), and exasperating. Hart not only couldn’t understand the media’s sudden fascination with his extracurricular activities but in The Front Runner‘s telling and in Jackman’s performance, refused to give an inch to his staff who were desperate to at least know the truth.
Hart was living in the past, and Reitman and his team capture the American media landscape as even venerable institutions like the Post begin considering a politician’s personal life fair game. There’s a fine moment with the always interesting Alfred Molina, here as the Post‘s legendary editor Bill Bradlee, recalling the time that LBJ instructed the press to ignore the women they’d see going into his hotel rooms as he traveled, the same courtesy they granted his predecessor, JFK. In that era, the press felt duty bound to look the other way. (We all know about JFK’s multiple affairs, but this writer was surprised to learn in The Front Runner about not only LBJ’s widely known trysts but even Eisenhower’s.) Jackson delivers a remarkable performance as a man who appears truly blindsided by the fact that his infidelities warrant public scrutiny and that they might speak to a character trait the American public will deem unworthy of the presidency.
The Front Runner is almost as much an ensemble film as it is another star turn for Jackman. Reitman’s reliable longtime collaborator J.K. Simmons turns in another stellar performance as Hart’s campaign manager and longtime friend Bill Dixon. Vera Farmiga turns the tough role of Hart’s wife Lee into a portrait of conflict, a woman who long ago made a deal with her husband and who refuses to be the vessel through which the media channel their outrage. Courtney Ford is wonderful as Hart staffer Lynn Armandt, who ultimately takes on the job of trying to soothe Hart’s latest paramour, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), whom he met on a boat in Miami and was then caught (by the Miami Herald) inviting to his Washington D.C. townhouse—the one he shared with his wife and daughter.
When the story of Hart’s possible fling with Rice first broke, the other major papers, the Washington Post included, were aware they were no longer operating in the same clubby, boys-will-be-boys atmosphere of yesteryear. Much of The Front Runner sees Hart’s team attempting to corral the story, and their unforthcoming boss, to no avail. Eventually, the Post receive yet more damaging information, and Hart’s long history of infidelity is going to be exposed, either by the venerable paper that helped bring down Nixon, or one of their competitors. At an excruciating press conference, Hart attempts to finally answer some questions, and the man he ends up facing is the Post‘s A.J. Parker, who, like many people in the film, both admires Hart and feels betrayed by him. The question he asks is one that’ll be asked in the years to come, of not only presidential candidates but presidents themselves. It’s to The Front Runner‘s credit that even after all we’ve seen in the years since 1988, watching this moment unfold in the film still makes you cringe.
The Front Runner opens on November 21, 2018.