Front Runner, rated R
Front Runner is based on the true story of how Gary Hart’s promising 1988 presidential campaign came to a grinding halt. The film is directed and co-written by four-time Oscar nominee Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno). Reitman wrote the film with former New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai, who wrote the 2014 book All The Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, and two-time Emmy nominee Jay Carson (House of Cards). The film is shot on 35mm by cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Up in the Air). The film is bolstered by a strong cast.
Gary Hart, played by Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman (Les Miserable, The Greatest Showman), was a 46-year-old, two-term senator from Colorado who had made a strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, before losing out to Walter Mondale. He is seen as the idealistic face of the future for the party. Hart’s wife Lee is played by Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), and his daughter Andrea is played by Kaitlyn Dever (Last Man Standing). The film is set in the early stages of the 1988 presidential campaign. Hart is polling with a double-digit lead over the other contenders for the Democratic nomination for president to run against then Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election to replace Ronald Reagan.Hart was not your usual political candidate, however. He didn’t like photoshoots, barbeques, and other usual political campaign norms. This created challenges for his campaign manager Bill Dixon, played by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons (Whiplash). Hart was arrogant and aloof, and had been separated from his wife, who was known to “look the other way” at his womanizing. In the past, the media would also look the other way at the womanizing of presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But that all changed thirty years ago with Gary Hart.
We see Hart taking a break from the campaign, ending up on the yacht “Monkey Business” where he meets model turned pharmaceutical sales representative Donna Rice, played by Sara Paxton, which leads to an affair. One of Rice’s “friends” gives the Miami Herald a tip about the affair and tries to get paid for a photograph of the two, which is not taken seriously. However, when the Herald gets confirmation that Rice is going to meet Hart in Washington D.C., they stake out Hart’s D.C. townhouse and photograph Rice coming and going. They are then caught by Hart which leads to an angry confrontation.
Hart did not immediately drop out of the race, thinking that his private life was just that. He displayed anger and just wanted to proceed with his policy speeches, much to the chagrin of campaign manager Dixon.
Molly Ephraim (Last Man Standing), portrays Hart staffer Irene Kelly. She shows kindness to Rice as she suddenly finds herself in the national spotlight. Kevin Pollak portrays the Miami Herald editor who defends his tabloid leaning reporters. Emmy nominee Alfred Molina (Feud) portrays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Mamoudou Athie delivers a strong performance as A.J. Parker, a reporter for The Washington Post, who builds a close relationship with Hart. Parker’s character is one that did not actually exist. The film features a number of characters that are either completely fictional or a combination of several actual people, but for the most part the film is historically accurate. Interestingly, the film chose not to show or even make reference to the infamous photo of Rice sitting in Hart’s lap, with Hart wearing a t-shirt that read “Monkey Business Crew”.
The film is rated “R” for a significant amount of adult language, including a number of abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names. Themes include arrogance, the role of the media, privacy and adultery.
The film features some very good acting performances, particularly from Jackman, Farmiga and Simmons. It does a good job depicting the 1980’s with constant indoor cigarette smoking, huge portable phones, pay phones, hairstyles, etc.
The film wants us to consider two things – the role of the media regarding a political candidate’s personal life, and the importance of character in the life of a political candidate. On the latter, I’ve always like the definition of character as doing the right thing when nobody is watching you. Given that definition, Hart was not a man of character. Pastor and author Carey Nieuwhof writes about character in his new book Didn’t See It Coming that “All the competency in the world can’t compensate for a lack of character” and “Lack of character kills careers, shatters families, ruins friendships, and destroys influence”.
Front Runner is a well-written and acted film, and features a strong cast. It depicts a point in history when the media began to no longer turn their heads away from political figures’ womanizing, pointing forward to how the media has dealt with political figures such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s not a great movie, but will likely lead to a good discussion about the two things that the film wants us to consider.