Hugh Jackman’s impassioned performance as Gary Hart, a President-in-waiting toppled by an extra-marital affair, is insufficient in elevating Jason Reitman’s latest film beyond a mere retelling. The film informs us that Hart was a promising potential Democratic candidate who squandered his chance to take the White House by challenging the media’s claims of his infidelity. The Front Runner is a historical recount bereft of a conclusive argument, made poorer by its oversized self-importance and thematic alienation.
Gary Hart is quickly established as a conscientious presidential candidate. His positive qualities registered with voters as he led George HW Bush by double digits in the polls. But if a week is a long time in politics, then three weeks was more than enough to upend the political landscape.
The tide turns when the Miami Herald receives a tip concerning Hart’s adultery. Angered by this distraction from his policies, Hart denies the claims and challenges the media to investigate his private life. “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” Hart’s lies spark his political implosion. A stake-out of his home whilst his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) is away proves fruitful, producing photographic evidence of his dalliance with Donna Rice (Sara Paton). The voters, to whom the memories of Nixon’s lies regarding the Watergate scandal were still fresh, interpret this dishonesty as a testament to Hart’s true character. As his campaign crumbles around him, The Front Runner assesses the relevance of politicians’ private lives in politics.
Although we are given the impression that this was the first time the personal became political, this isn’t true. Hart himself served as 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern’s campaign manager when the press revealed Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s running mate, had received treatment for his mental health. This gives The Front Runner a bloated sense of self-importance, a bit like its talented yet ever-grandstanding lead actor.
Moreover, there is an unrewarding obsession with the debate surrounding the jurisdiction of the press, to which only a thin conclusion is drawn. Time would have been better spent pivoting focus to Lee, Hart’s wife. Closer analysis of the domestic drama, akin to The Wife, would have given the deplorably wasted Farmiga more time to shine. She fully utilises the morsel of screen time she is awarded by giving a captivatingly emotional response to her marriage coming under public scrutiny. Although the public quickly fell out of love with Hart, the pair remain married to this day.
Hugh Jackman proves he’s still a great showman without a top hat or metallic claws, but The Front Runner’s failures are fundamental. The drama refuses to resonate with an audience accustomed to the press regularly reporting on politicians’ private lives, made worse by the film being an alien time capsule for an era when political ambitions could be toppled by revelations of extra-marital affairs.
The Front Runner is in cinemas now.