FILM REVIEW – THE FRONT RUNNER. With Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alex Karpovsky, Alfred Molina. Written by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Jason Reitman. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated R for language including some sexual references. 113 minutes.
Jason Reitman’s THE FRONT RUNNER may not be the worst movie of the year, but it’s gotta be the most inessential and out-of-touch. A hectoring finger-wag about former Colorado senator Gary Hart’s doomed 1988 presidential campaign, the film purports to pinpoint the moment when political coverage gave in to tabloid temptations and reporters stopped looking the other way when old rich dudes flaunted their extramarital affairs.
Reitman treats this as a national tragedy, depicting D.C. journalism an eden despoiled by craven hordes pandering to the basest instincts of their readers while the country suffers because born leaders like Hart are brought low for inconsequential personal failings. He never seems to have entertained the notion that it might say something about a man’s character when he keeps tripping over his dick.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart from beneath a wig so distracting I had a hard time looking at anything else, but beyond the tonsorial disaster his performance is hard to get a handle on, as the film holds him at a distance. When he and long-suffering wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) have a late-movie emotional showdown the scene feels dropped in from another picture altogether. The one we’ve been watching doesn’t have that kind of access to these people’s private moments.
Based on the book “All The Truth Is Out” by Matt Bai (who co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” writer Jay Carson) the film is more concerned with the buzzing about of Hart’s campaign workers in crisis mode and long talks about ethics in bustling newsrooms, where we witness the insane casting of Alfred Molina as legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
“The Front Runner” runs around in shallow circles with lots of cluttered, wannabe-Altman crowd scenes and overqualified actors spitting out sub-Sorkin banter. Reitman regular J.K. Simmons is on hand to spout cynical one-liners and it’s all very grave business indeed, with dolorous faces frowning at Johnny Carson monologue jokes. (What a gift it was to comedy writers that Hart got caught fooling around on a yacht called “Monkey Business.”) Everyone here both behind and in front of the camera seems furious that JFK and LBJ could cat around all they wanted in the White House while now all of the sudden poor Gary Hart has to face consequences for his actions.
It’s my personal opinion that anyone who, like Hart, publicly dares reporters to follow him around and then acts all huffy and indignant when they catch him chasing pussy is probably too stupid to be trusted with the nuclear codes. Besides, Bill Clinton and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have already established that infidelity need not be disqualifying, and much better movies like Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s “Primary Colors” have already pondered the gap between policy brilliance and personal peccadilloes, wondering just how much we’re willing to put up with for what we consider the right reasons. Reitman’s movie feels a lot more than a day late and a dollar short, angrily and repetitively insisting a candidate’s sex life is none of our business, and that something important was lost when these Miami Herald reporters took Hart up on his dopey dare.
At a cultural moment when powerful men are finally being called upon to answer for their sexual improprieties, a film like “The Front Runner” couldn’t possibly be less in tune with the times. I’m also not sure right now it’s such a hot idea to make a movie demonizing the press as the cause of all the problems in politics. Reitman’s a glib, smarmy filmmaker who after a recent string of bombs has become something of a poster boy for mediocre white guys coasting on old money and family connections. This banal, deeply incurious picture exudes exactly that kind of entitlement, pining away for the good old days when the privileged and powerful closed ranks to protect their own. He should make a Brett Kavanaugh film next.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.