You could call The Front Runner “timely.” Sony Pictures would certainly like that; they released it on Election Day for a reason. But while the story it tells is fascinating, and can be discussed and dissected for eternity with no real satisfying conclusion, it doesn't translate to a two-hour movie. This could be writer-director Jason Reitman's fault; it may have been an impossible dream. Either way, what we get is shallow when it should be deep.
Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the titular front runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He's an uncompromising ideas man, seemingly disgusted with personal questions at a time when policy should be front of mind. But when Miami Herald journalist Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) uncovers a potential affair with a young woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), Hart is suddenly bombarded with demands to explain what he's done and with whom. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't go well.
One area where Reitman mostly succeeds is emphasizing how unprecedented these inquiries were. He has Alfred Molina do his best boastful Ben Bradlee and reiterate how the press ignored the affairs of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. What he doesn't focus on, however, is why the times have changed. He just has Molina say they have, and we move on.
Which, to a certain extent, is fair. It was a complicated evolution within the media-public-politician triumvirate. The public was weary of bullshitters who said one thing and did the other; the media was realizing the value in a little bit of dressed-up sleaze; and Hart, in particular, hung his hat on being above all this nonsense when he was actually benefiting mightily from a “look the other way” policy. But, given that this took place two decades ago, it would be nice for Reitman and company to take a hard stance. This isn't a documentary.
What we ultimately get is a little bit of everything, until they decide to close on Hart decrying politics as a popularity contest and politicians being treated as celebrities in ways good and bad. It’s a very relevant message, especially these days, but I'm not sure that the compromised Hart should get the final word. Granted, Reitman and his cowriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson couldn't have fully anticipated the #MeToo movement and Brett Kavanaugh hearings that have reshaped the conversation on sexual abuses of power and assault over the last two years. But they could've taken some time to address Hart (allegedly) bedding a 29-year-old over 20 years his junior as he approached a run for President of the United States, beyond focusing on adultery as a binary moral choice.
Something in Gary Hart was broken; that shouldn't necessarily disqualify him for public office, nor should it define him entirely. But at the end of the day, Jackman's Gary Hart is a big, handsome man who is depicted as a likely excellent future leader of the free world. Meanwhile, Steve Zissis's Fiedler is an unkempt, out-of-shape dude who lugs around a satchel and hangs out with Bill Burr. One of those two is a hero and protagonist, the other is an impediment. That's the takeaway from The Front Runner, and it shouldn't be.
Performance-wise, Jackman is solid to spectacular; he can't help that he's giant and has great hair, but he certainly seems to grasp that Hart is a walking contradiction and all this well-spoken bluster is cover for something private and a little unseemly. And Vera Farmiga as Hart's wife Lee has a few excellent scenes where you sense the damage this has done; you can feel the disappointment, as opposed to pure anger, that her husband has made such bad choices at such key moments. That's a hard note to hit, but Farmiga melds acceptance and frustration beautifully.
But this is a story that needs journalistic nuance, which Bai actually provided in his book All the Truth Is Out on which this movie is based. He paints a complicated picture of an uncertain media landscape and an overly proud presidential candidate who was both a hypocrite and exactly right. Hart warned against trends in how the media covers politicians, yet part of that was certainly to cover his own ass as a perpetual womanizer. Unfortunately, and maybe inevitably, Reitman can't get all that on screen. We'll never know if someone else could, but this is more of a “hey remember that” than a genuine analysis of a time when everything actually did change.