The Front Runner

The infamous photograph of Senator Gary Hart, sitting on a pier in a Monkey Business shirt with model Donna Rice sitting in his lap, defined not only an election year but Hart’s political career. It summed up the failed presidential candidacy of a man but also provides a telling, cheeky and unintentionally funny snapshot of a spectacular political downfall. The photo was on the cover of National Enquirer, People and nearly every other magazine sold at newsstands and at the grocery store checkout counter. There was no escaping that picture, which is why, even at ten years old, I knew all about Gary Hart and his infamous “Monkey Business.” At no point during “The Front Runner,” Jason Reitman’s film about Hart’s very-bad 1988, does that photo ever come up and its one of the many things wrong with this entertaining but extremely limited political drama.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart, the well-spoken, charismatic democratic senator who appeared to be giving George H.W. Bush his fiercest competition during the ’88 presidential race. During Hart’s campaign, his popularity and visibility with voters was rising, but so was his appetite for dalliances with attractive women. Hart treated it as a none-of-your-business topic with those closest to him but (according to this movie) dared the press to follow him if they genuinely thought he was up to no good. Before long, Hart’s unorthodox relationship with Lee, his wife (played by Vera Farmiga), and his apparently questionable connection to Rice (played by Sara Paxton) became nationwide news fodder.

Reitman’s portrait of Hart’s final weeks as a presidential candidate have been filmed in way to mimic the works of Robert Altman; specifically, the voyeuristic camera work and overlapping dialog that distinguishes several Altman masterpieces. Here, it feels like Reitman is trying too hard to juice up the neutered screenplay. Likewise, Jackman’s work is felt but unimpressive, both in terms of what he brings to the role and how dynamic he’s been in the past.

“The Front Runner” never cuts deep enough, soft shoes its subject and basks in its period setting instead of cutting deeply as a character study. That applies to Jackman as well, as he’s very good but doesn’t allow us to see past Hart’s political front. Likewise, Paxton’s take on Rice is alarmingly one-note (a fault of the screenplay as much as the actress). At least Farmiga gets to reenact Beatrice Straight’s angry, betrayed wife scene from “Network.” J.K. Simmons has a smaller role in the ensemble but do not underestimate what he brings to this film. Simmons has a couple of monologues that he absolutely nails, providing the film with a force from the sidelines; he’s excellent and the best thing in the movie.

With Reitman’s decision to go with a faux-documentary style, we’re distracted by the showiness of the approach and not fully drawn in (which wasn’t  the case when Altman, Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollock would apply this style). Reitman badly wants this to be “The Candidate” but it winds up being this season’s “The Post,” as its just-serviceable enough without being impactful or worth seeing more than once.

The scandal rags that reported the “Monkey Business” hit harder than Reitman ever does, which shouldn’t be the case. The Hart story maintains its fascination and having an insider’s view is appealing. The real fun is seeing the budget generously provide all the 80’s wigs, pop songs, typewriters, curly-chord telephones,  and “Where’s The Beef” references.

In the age of “fake news” and revoked and re-gained White House press credentials, the timing is off, if downright peculiar, for a movie to be blaming the press for a politician’s downfall. If Reitman genuinely wanted to make waves and wag his finger at paparazzi and scandal-hungry journalists, he should have, for example, gone after the idiots who caused Princess Diana’s fatal car crash. Honestly, is the Hart story all that interesting anymore? The man was caught for an indiscretion, dropped out of the presidential race and that’s it. Seems awfully quaint when compared to…well, anything that has happened in The White House for the past year.

Two Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly