Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.
It’s easy to see why a director like Jason Reitman would be attracted to the story of a fallen idol like former Colorado senator and two-time primary candidate Gary Hart. Here stood a “good” man, brought to great heights by the lofty words of the fawning press, who faced a betrayal by those same cheerleaders that ultimately ruined the man’s grand ambitions. He, as a target of the critical press (especially after two of his films, Labor Day and Men, Women and Children flopped), identifies with the persecuted here, and it makes enough sense on paper. His latest film, The Front Runner, is liberal self-crit in a similar vein to last year’s Chappaquiddick. But unlike that film, which scrutinized and placed a heavy blame on its subject for his failings, you’re led to think that Gary Hart, as played here by the living embodiment of likability, Hugh Jackman, might have actually been the second coming of Jesus Christ.
If you’re like me and weren’t alive when Hart ran for President, he was the front runner for the Democratic nomination back in 1988, after having lost an insurgent campaign four years earlier due to the fact that Walter Mondale had seen a Wendy’s commercial on television the night before a debate. He was the overwhelming favorite to win the presidency that year, but the guy, well, liked to fuck around. And after meeting a young woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton, given about as much to do here as the set dressings) aboard a ship named the Monkey Business (truth is stranger than fiction!), Hart cheats on his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) with her.
The Miami Herald, of all places, manages to get a lead on this thanks to an anonymous tipster, and runs with the story, despite the initial objections of its owner. This story would take Gary Hart from candidate to late-night punchline in only three weeks, and pretty much destroy his public life. Jackman is fine, though nowhere near his best, but this is a Jason Reitman film, so you can be assured that it will be competently shot and acted, though boringly, but it’s all a bit bullshit otherwise.
It’s a bit odd having a film like this come out a year after the same critics (who I think will probably dig this) elevated something like Spielberg’s The Post to the #Resistance canon, given how much it seems to hate the business of reporting. I’ve read the book that co-screenwriter Matt Bai authored about Hart’s campaign, and, while a hagiography of Hart and an apologia for his many mistakes, Bai still took the time to dig into the motives and emotions of the men who took down his campaign — reporters from the Herald and, later, The Washington Post — whom receive little sympathy from Reitman and company (one reporter from the Herald is portrayed as being vindictive thanks to a perceived slight by Hart’s campaign). It’s hard to stomach this line of criticism in an environment where the press is routinely demonized for reporting objective truth, but the main focus of the movie’s criticism of them, that they broke with tradition and “turned tabloid,” might have been true had American politics began with FDR’s presidency. The myth of discretion — on both sides of that isle — is already based on tenuous grounds, and Reitman et al are content to milk that for all of its little value.
Perhaps all of this might have been worth something if Reitman were content to interrogate his lead character beyond his public persona. For all of Jackman’s effort, Hart remains something unknowable, We never see Hart come to terms with his failures as a husband and as a father, and this makes his downfall… well, not exactly undeserved. We get glimpses of the broken hearts after his affairs are brought to light, but it’s not as if that truly bothers him, based on what we get here. It’s the press who are wrong, and Hart continues to stubbornly insist that his private life isn’t up for public scrutiny (and I would agree with him!) and that the voters won’t give a shit, all the way up until the end. He refuses to accept any blame for his actions, and the film agrees with him and flatters him throughout. Sure, he might have betrayed his wife, but he can sure throw an axe!
Also, the film is weirdly out of touch: This might have made sense if the 2016 election had gone a different way, but we have already proved Hart’s great thesis: That we, as a nation, don’t give a shit about philandering when it comes to our elected officials, provided that they strike the right chord with us. It’s fitting that Reitman chooses to end his movie on Hart’s campaign-ending speech, where he moralizes about the nature of civility and the degradation of journalism, played here as if it were Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator, when in truth, it’s the narcissist’s equivalent of Eisenhower or Washington’s farewell addresses. We’re meant to feel saddened by this self-inflicted loss of power or anger to the powers that brought this great man so low, but The Front Runner never provides you with the material to make it tragic.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.