Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
In the current political climate with politicians clashing with journalists and media members on a daily basis, it seems like the perfect time to tell the story Gary Hart, the 1988 presidential candidate whose campaign was destroyed when the media found out he had been having an extra-marital affair. Director Jason Reitman, whose first film, 2005’s Thank You for Smoking, delved into the world of political lobbyists, raises a lot of tough and relevant questions with The Front Runner, about the three weeks in which Hart’s campaign plunged off a cliff.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart, the runner-up for the Democratic nomination in the 1984 presidential election who is the immediate front runner to run against George H.W. Bush in 1988. Known as the candidate with a lot of compelling ideas for the future of the country and who became the popular pick among younger voters, Hart already had a big lead in the Democratic race when the events of this film take place. He was also a man who guarded his privacy carefully and believed his personal life was off-limits to the public. Unfortunately for him, this belief was not shared by the public and in the dawn of the 24/7 news cycle era, he was about to be exposed.
The downfall began when a Miami Herald reporter received an anonymous call from a woman who says her “friend” had an affair with the politician and asking if they would pay for photos. The journalist dismisses her at first because Hart’s schedule says he will be somewhere different from where she says he will be, but when he receives notice of an unexpected change in the Senator’s schedule, he recruits a co-worker and photographer to help him pursue the story. They stake out Hart’s residence and witness a woman being escorted into the home. The question of whether or not their stakeout was ethical or not became irrelevant after Hart dared another inquisitive reporter to follow him around, suggesting that he would find nothing but boredom. This dare went public and to the press, that was an invitation—an invitation that would destroy Hart’s political career.
The Front Runner is based on the book by journalist Matt Bai, who collaborated on the screenplay with Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman. The screenplay is a witty and clever examination of the relationship between the media and politicians. Many of its most memorable pieces of dialogue not only apply perfectly to the story the script is telling, but could also be directly referring to current events. Hart’s exclamation that “world change can only happen when young people are engaged” can be seen as a call to action for today’s youth and it is easy to identify who the movie is referring to when he admonishes the media, saying that he fears the day when America has the leader it deserves.
Whether or not the movie treated Hart’s character too harshly or not harsh enough might depend on the viewer’s personal politics, but even though the movie does want you to identify with Hart and therefore paints him in a somewhat more sympathetic light, it doesn’t let him off the hook for his bad behavior either. When he is asked a direct question and delivers a—to quote another film about political journalism—“non-denial denial,” the movie makes it clear that we should be disappointed by him, even embarrassed. That said, it is difficult not to side with Hart when he is played by such a charismatic actor as Hugh Jackman.
Jackman’s performance as Hart is remarkable. He perfectly portrays both the confidence of the Hart who knows what Americans need and the befuddlement of the man who doesn’t understand what Americans want. He is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast including Reitman favorite J.K Simmons as his campaign manager, Vera Farmiga as his wife, and Sara Paxton as the woman whom all the fuss is about. And the cast of journalists and campaign workers are filled out nicely by a group of where-have-I-seen-them-before actors.
The Front Runner is not only a well-directed, entertaining film with a great cast, but it is also an extremely relevant movie that asks a lot of questions for audiences to be discussing well after the credits roll. The Hart scandal marked a direct change in how politicians’ personal lives are viewed through the media, something that is only further emphasized in today’s culture in which everyone has a social medial platform for their opinions. That relevance makes this a political drama that is definitely worth your time.
The Front Runner opens today at the Cinemark Lincoln Square in Bellevue.