BFI London Film Festival: The Front Runner

The Front Runner
The Front Runner
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga and J.K. Simmons
Screening at LFF October 14th and 15th 2018

by Richard Hamer

A relative footnote in U.S. political history, given new resonance in the era of Trump, Twitter and 24-hour online news, The Front Runner charts the fall of 1988 Presidential Candidate Gary Hart. His confidence, charm and good political sense made him the man to beat; allegations of an extra-marital affair brought him down.

Why tell this story now? The Front Runner contends that Gary Hart was the first major casualty of a new political landscape, where cable news and tabloid sensibilities created an era of trial-by-media. It was no longer the issues that got you to power, but your ability to survive a gauntlet of personal intrusion.

Hugh Jackman delivers a career-best as the embattled Hart, expertly navigating the most interesting part of the character: He did not deny the accusations against him, he believed that they did not matter. Jackman fully embodies the frustration of a man who sees his country give into shallow sensationalism, focusing on everything except what’s important. And while its very much Jackman’s movie, he is well supported by a busy cast of advisors and journalists; most notably J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon. The dialogue between them all is sharp and funny, shot against chaotic, crowded backdrops that makes fast and fun what could have been dry and static.

And yet, while The Front Runner is well-made, with strong performances, it is marred by a script that struggles to articulate its own issues. Scenes focusing on Donna Rice – the woman Hart had the affair with – seek to address issues of gender power imbalance, and characterize someone who could have easily been a disposable plot device. They do important work, but fail to stick the landing: They struggle to connect to the larger picture, and feel forced as a result.

Similarly, while its overall message on the decline of the media is hugely relevant, The Front Runner fails to leave any memorable, overriding image; it quietly fades away in its over-long final third, when it should be punching to the gut. Ultimately, Hart’s own words – “I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve” – carry far more resonance than any of the thousands of made-up words in the script that surround it.

But there is a lot to like here: Hugh Jackman does the business in his first major dramatic work post-Logan, and while The Front Runner isn’t destined to be a classic, Jason Reitman presents an artfully shot, quick-witted political drama that is never less than enjoyable.

Yet given its subject matter, and the times we live in, one expects to leave the cinema angry and indignant, rather than just pleasantly entertained. And in that sense, The Front Runner is something of a missed opportunity.


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