“Follow me around,” says irritated Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) to the assembled press corps. “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” And with those words he sealed his fate, destroying his chance of being the Democratic Party’s candidate in the 1988 presidential election. Arrogance? Naivete? Both? Director Jason Reitman lets you be the judge in The Front Runner.
Back in the day, Hart was the pin-up boy for the Democrats, his good looks and family image producing the inevitable Kennedy comparisons. This was 1988 and more than ten years after Watergate era, his was a presidency viewed with misty eyes, even if it was becoming tarnished. With one failed attempt at winning the candidacy behind him, Hart looked a realistic prospect second time round and his rise to being the front runner was meteoric. Just three short weeks after he declared his candidacy, he’d pulled out of the race, accused of an affair by the Miami Herald. And it’s those weeks that are the subject of Reitman’s film.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Hart’s story and contemporary American politics. As the story of his affair with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) spirals out of control, campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J K Simmons) points out that “things are different now.” They were then and they certainly are now. The next Democratic president was one Bill Clinton, who took up office in 1992 and we all know what and who nearly lost him The White House. The current POTUS has had similar allegations levelled at him. Clinton survived and so has Trump – so far, anyway. Hart was completely derailed and kicked into touch. The inevitable conclusion is that politicians at the time learnt nothing. And probably haven’t now.
The West Wing, which depicted the best Democratic president America never had (or so they say), casts a long shadow over political drama. But this is no West Wing, rather the antithesis. Reitman has deliberately set out to upturn that slick image and what The Front Runner shows us is anything but well-oiled. The opening moments are deliberately hard on the ears, with umpteen different conversations going on in the campaign office, all equally loud and impossible to distinguish from each other. It’s chaos and everything behind the scenes is just the same, especially the telephone engineer working with an enormous spider’s web of cables. It’s a campaign that stumbles along, is cursed by bad luck – only Hart could have held his media launch at the aptly named Troublesome Gulch – and permanently exists on the edge of disaster.
Yet the man at the head of the campaign is something of a surprise. As played by Jackman, he progresses from somebody who’s been packaged for the media and is a quick, smart debater to somebody slumped in a chair, unshaven and unkempt. His penultimate public appearance, a press conference to get the campaign back on track, is a train wreck: he’s a man who’s had enough of public life and the only way out is to self-destruct. This is very much Jackman’s film, even if he’s off the screen regularly, and it demonstrates his range as an actor. It’s easy to see how he inspires loyalty in the likes of his campaign manager Dixon, who is almost evangelical in his belief. JK Simmons plays him as a toned down Terrence Fletcher, but there’s no questioning his devastation when his hero is brought down and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
It’s a riveting film, both in terms of the narrative and as a return to form for Reitman. With this and Tully, he’s recaptured the flair that deserted him with Labour Day and Men, Women And Children. He gives us a convincing look behind the scenes of American politics, creating an authentic atmosphere and painting a picture of the media, who played such a key part in Hart’s story, not so much as heroes but more like manipulators. And that they are more than capable of getting things wrong. Just like anybody else.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama | 15 | London Film Festival 14 and 15 October (2018) | UK, 25 January (2019) | Sony | Dir. Jason Reitman | Hugh Jackman, JK Simmons, Vera Farmiga, Sara Paxton and Alfred Molina.