In the spring of 1987, leading Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Gary Hart issued a casual challenge that turned out to be one of the most fateful in American political history.
‚ÄúIf anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead,‚ÄĚ he told a New York Times reporter who‚Äôd inquired about rumors of womanizing and infidelity. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôd be very bored.‚ÄĚ
For a coincidence of timing meant that that off-the-cuff remark not only came back to haunt Hart and destroy his career, its consequences continue to bedevil American political culture to this day.
That situation ignited something in filmmaker Jason Reitman, and the result is the smart, fast and funny ‚ÄúThe Front Runner,‚ÄĚ a tip-top piece of entertainment starring Hugh Jackman as Hart and Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee, that is as significant as it is enjoyable.
With his most ambitious film, Reitman returns to the form of some of his earlier issue-related pleasures, such as ‚ÄúThank You for Smoking,‚ÄĚ his biting film on Big Tobacco, and ‚ÄúUp in the Air,‚ÄĚ about American corporate culture.
This time, working from the book ‚ÄúAll the Truth Is Out‚ÄĚ by political journalist Matt Bai (who co-wrote the script with former Hillary Clinton Press Secretary Jay Carson and Reitman), the filmmaker takes on the genie that‚Äôs not going back in the bottle, the increased role tabloid journalism has taken in our political discourse.
Despite the potential for rancorous finger-pointing, one of the remarkable things about ‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ is its determination to be even-handed, to encourage viewers to make up their own minds (at least up to a point) about what happened 30 years ago and what it means for today.
Given that it details a story whose start-to-finish outline is quite well known, ‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ is also a surprisingly gripping piece of work, with cinematographer Eric Steelberg and editor Stefan Grube deserving a chunk of the credit.
They were foremost in putting into practice Reitman‚Äôs decision to both echo Michael Ritchie‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Candidate,‚ÄĚ one of the director‚Äôs favorite films, and structure ‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ a bit like a classic 1970s Robert Altman film, complete with multiple characters, overlapping dialogue and a roving, probing camera.
This is most apparent in the film‚Äôs ambitious opening scene, set a few years earlier, and presenting, in a formidable single take, the entire chaotic panoply of political staffers, print journalists and television trucks that surrounded Hart‚Äôs San Francisco concession to rival candidate Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.
Even then the Colorado politician was thinking about the future, telling an aide, ‚Äúin four years they still won‚Äôt have an answer to our ideas.‚ÄĚ
In fact, as Hart prepares to formally enter the race in 1987 it‚Äôs with an impressive lead. Showing how three weeks in April derailed all that is the order of business here.
At the center of what went wrong was a floating party on a boat implausibly called Monkey Business where, in a deftly understated scene, we see Hart lock eyes with the attractive Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). We never see any actual monkey business, and the real-life participants have never confirmed any, but what matters here is not the truth but what happened next.
At the scrappy Miami Herald, reporter Thomas Fiedler (Steve Zissis) gets an anonymous phone tip about the Hart-Rice liaison. Roughly coincidental with the appearance of the Hart quote in the New York Times, Herald reporters fly to Washington to do something reporters had not done before: confront a candidate about his extramarital life.
As structured by Reitman and his co-writers, ‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ alternates its focus between the campaign, the journalists who cover it and the candidate‚Äôs family.
Since both co-writers Bai and Carson have extensive campaign experience, it‚Äôs no surprise that the movie encourages us to feel we‚Äôre on the inside, including the grind of campaigning and cynical humor.
If there is a drawback to the film‚Äôs methodology, it‚Äôs that, with the exception of J.K. Simmons ‚ÄĒ on point as always as veteran Hart campaign manager Bill Dixon ‚ÄĒ it is sometimes hard to tell the numerous Hart staffers and the various journalists apart from one another.
There is no such problem with the film‚Äôs stars, starting with Jackman, who does excellent, charismatic work presenting Hart as an elusive politician, at times arrogant and thin-skinned but a genuine idealist who wanted to govern and didn‚Äôt see why he had to reveal his personal life to do so.
‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ does equally well with the women in Hart‚Äôs life, starting with Farmiga, who brings her formidable presence and skill to the challenges of being a politician‚Äôs wife.
Also strong are Paxton as Rice and Molly Ephraim as composite Hart staffer Irene Kelly, two women who end up spending a lot more time together than they had planned.
‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ treats Rice with respect as a bright, ambitious if somewhat naive young woman, and her scenes with Kelly, deputized to wrangle Rice after all hell breaks loose, are especially strong.
Having this much focus on a candidate‚Äôs private life was unprecedented and a turning point in how we cover politicians. Did the Herald and everyone else overstep media boundaries, or was the information sought an essential key to character?
‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ is careful not to seem to be taking sides with this question. The portrayal of Fiedler and his Herald cohorts leans toward opportunism, but A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), the composite reporter who asks Hart about adultery at a news conference, is treated with respect. It‚Äôs up to us to decide which side to take.
Given that ‚ÄúThe Front Runner‚ÄĚ opens on election day, the film also encourages audiences to ponder how the Hart-stopping change in media behavior has impacted politics. Do today‚Äôs successful candidates need stellar morals as a result of what happened, or are they simply more adept at being celebrities and surviving character assassination?
Hart, more prescient than successful, seemed to see it all coming.
‚ÄúPolitics in this country ‚ÄĒ take it from me,‚ÄĚ he said in his 1987 withdrawal speech, ‚Äúis on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs hard to argue with that.