Editor KC Wingert reviews Jason Reitman’s political and timely biopic on the 1987 Gary Hart scandal.
Director Jason Reitman has a penchant for stories about people whose morality sits firmly in a grey area. Avoiding concrete heroes and villains in his films, the Juno and Up In the Air director typically focuses on stories of ordinary people, and he does so with aplomb. However, his latest film focuses on the moral ambiguity surrounding a figure who errs more toward the extraordinary than the ordinary. With a surprising foray into the political drama genre, Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is based on the true story of the 1988 U.S. Democratic primary hopeful whose political career was ruined forever following a massive sex scandal.
This film’s frenetic energy and quick pace paint a portrait of the exciting, albeit hectic, world of the team behind the ’88 primary campaign — and of the journalists reporting on it. Its visual style is characterised by a liberal use of sweeping, meandering long takes that hardly linger on any singular character long enough for them to speak more than one line. These quick glimpses of conversation between the staffers and journalists — a group comprised of familiar faces like J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon — emphasize the relative importance (or lack thereof) that these individuals hold when compared to the race’s front runner himself.
Hugh Jackman plays Gary Hart, a charming senator from Colorado whose fresh, liberal platform and comparative youth make him a candidate that the nation’s young voters can get behind. By most accounts, Hart is poised to win the Democratic primary and eventually become the next President of the United States. However, when caught having an extramarital affair, Hart finds himself caught in a media firestorm that he can’t seem to brush aside, despite all efforts to refocus the press back towards his political platform. With a stoic and largely unemotional performance, Jackman successfully paints Hart as a distracted, private man focused more on his career than on his personal life. But viewers should take care not to overlook the performers behind two figures so often silenced in any public figure’s sex scandal: the Other Woman, and the Woman Scorned.
Sara Paxton plays Donna Rice, the so-called bimbo who first attracts Hart’s attention at a yacht party off the shores of Miami. The juicy details of her affair with the candidate hit the newsstands, and her life is turned upside down. With an emotional performance, Paxton presents Rice as an ordinary woman: educated, successful, and now, permanently scarred and humiliated by the hate and abuse she receives at a national level after making the mistake of sleeping with a married man. On the other side of the coin, Vera Farmiga plays Lee Hart as a powerful figure who will not be humiliated— not by her husband, and not by the reporters covering his infidelity. Stony-faced and enduring, Farmiga’s Lee is formidable but never hysterical, a loyal wife who in return demands accountability and respect from her husband. Together, Farmiga and Paxton’s masterfully complicated depictions of Lee Hart and Donna Rice humanise the two figures in this scandal who perhaps suffered the most – more, even, than the candidate forced to quit politics forever.
In the wake of the scandal, the frustrated Gary Hart draws comparisons to the likes of popular liberal politician and notorious womaniser John F. Kennedy himself. Hart’s downfall begs the question: if his politics are good, should the gritty details of a public servant’s personal life even matter? Should the type of “gotcha” journalism typical of celebrity tabloids be applied to political news coverage, too? The Front Runner poses questions whose answers are not so simple – not in the 1980s, and especially not today. With a former celebrity personality currently occupying the White House despite countless political and personal controversies, director Reitman’s latest film is timelier than ever.
The Front Runner will be released in the UK on January 11th, 2019. Check out its trailer below: