Jason Reitman's lack of a real point-of-view steers The Front Runner into messy, untimely territory
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
When trapped in our darkest personal moments, we often search for a concrete moment to blame for our predicament, to serve as an answer for all of our misery. This coping mechanism has slithered its way into political commentary, which for the past few years has tried to come to terms with how in the world we ended up with a reality show president in the Oval Office. The practice has jumped from cable news to the silver screen with Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, a biopic about the collapse of Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign in the wake of an extramarital affair being exposed by the press. Reitman (Tully), seemingly just as anxious about the current political climate as anyone, sees Hart’s story as the moment political reporting went insane, paving the way for decades of scandal and a collapse into tabloid-style reporting becoming the norm. It sets up the film to a potentially fascinating, complex portrait of the intimate relationship between politics and the news media, but instead Reitman’s inability to draw any clear line in the sand regarding the limits of privacy and journalism results in a messy film that feels deeply ill-suited for the political moment we’re living in.
It’s easy to see from the beginning of the film that Reitman sees Hart (Hugh Jackman, Logan) as a Shakespearean victim of the times, a man whose punishment did not fit his mistakes. He makes a large point out of the fact that innumerable politicians had conducted countless affairs before, and there was a decades-long quiet agreement between policymakers and “legacy” publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post to leave these practices out of print. Therefore, in Reitman’s eyes, Hart’s downfall was a product of the press reacting to changing national interests surrounding the morals and actions of elected officials. The problem lays in that his insistence to cover the story from all sides as if he’s a perfect reporter himself, he inadvertently paints all of the press as vultures whose power grew beyond their control. Reitman and company couldn’t have possibly have known the depths of hatred that would be levied towards the press by the White House whilst developing this film, but his view that reporting has lost the plot doesn’t just bring up questions of media accountability, it makes them look them look like the enemy. There’s few messages more dangerous in our fraught political times than that.
Jackman’s performance, solid but in reality taking up very little of the film, is deliberately designed to be distant in order to elicit sympathy, restraining his enigmatic persona for most of the plot to instead focus on the players who are inadvertently orchestrating his demise and have you identify mostly with the more likable aspects of his persona. It doesn’t exactly absolve Hart of his actions, using a pained performance from Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) as his wife Lee to remind that Hart hurt his family immensely, but it certainly wants you to feel for him regardless. None of it really works, mostly because the distance Reitman constructs makes Hart pretty much as unknowable on film as he is in real life. The script seems to suggest the man’s ideas are more important than the man, which is pretty ignorant when you consider that the man is what informs his ideas. Just look at Trump, who is incapable of separating his personal life from his presidency because he thrives in the attention. Maybe there’s some truth in the media’s propensity to focus on scandal propelling Trump into the limelight that gifted him the presidency, but to completely dismiss the press’s focus on the personal lives of candidates in light of Hart’s treatment doesn’t do anything expect further damaging narratives about their role in American democracy. Reitman’s sympathy for Hart may not be out of ill-will or misguided morals, but it perhaps does provide a bias he’s clearly trying to avoid.
The film’s muddied view point is only further evidenced by the fact the film’s impressive ensemble is collectively reduced to objects through which Reitman can fire off simple civics lessons, giving none of the actors anything truly interesting to do. JK Simmons’s (Whiplash) role as Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon and Mamoudou Athie’s role as a Washington Post reporter on the trail with Hart exist only to symbolize the film’s already obvious disapproval of the changing nature of the press, doing little outside standing mouth agape at the increasing chaos. There’s some West Wing-like energy in the film’s opening scenes, letting the actors riff on each other and their jobs like they’ve been living in their roles for years, but it’s quickly snuffed out as the film shifts to its surface-level ethical questioning. From there on out, lines play out like they’re ripped from textbooks, lacking humanity and only heightening the film’s increasingly evident inability to say anything original.
The Front Runner is ultimately a thoroughly unremarkable film, a political commentary spineless in its exploration and perhaps harmful in its misguided sense of objectivity. It aims to act like it thinks the press ought to be, living in a world where there are no heroes or villains, just people. But such a thought process eliminates the accountability the film demands, instead painting the act of journalism as now inherently an invasion of privacy, leaving those affected by the ills of these politicians’ wills largely in the dust.