The Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) of Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner hands a Washington Post reporter a copy of an undisclosed Tolstoy novel on board a flight. The reporter, recovering from a panic attack after a patch of turbulence, has been conflicted about bringing up Hart’s past infidelities and unconventional marriage, aware that any mention of gossip gravely annoys the 1988 presidential candidate. To bring up the issue would be uncouth, particularly given that Hart’s protocol regarding interviews saw him maintain a rigid divide between his private and personal life. He holds off on a line of questioning that would make the two of them uncomfortable, partly because Hart is so damn likeable. But back to that Tolstoy: Hart hands the reporter the novel as a means of understanding their Russian enemy, in the belief that hostilities between the two countries could be mitigated by knowledge of one another’s culture. It’s a rare moment of insight from a political figure that would suggest a measure of enlightenment, with Reitman frequently aligning our perspective with Hart; it’s the media and our insatiable American culture’s thirst for smut that turned a potentially life-altering figure away from the politics.
This proposal is, shall we say, not especially woke, which more or less plays to Reitman’s filmography dedicated to a more conservative polemic. Consider Juno and its fundamentally old-fashioned view on abortion, Up in the Air and how it reduces women to fixtures in a man’s existential crisis, or most gratingly, Men, Women, and Children and its tech-fear mongering. With The Front Runner, there’s a distinct sense of annoyance that seeps out of the picture; Hart is someone that Reitman and co-writers Matt Bal and Jay Carson cast as progressive, thoughtful, and a catalyst for genuine change. To see the man get torn down for sleeping with a few women shouldn’t disqualify him from becoming President, Reitman argues. It’s not veiled either; Reitman is just as bellicose as Brett Kavanaugh at the Blasey-Ford hearings, projecting his anxieties and insecurities about how the past should not reflect on a person’s present-day character and integrity. In the three weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention where Hart is expected to win, we observe how a scandal could derail the ambitions of what Reitman strains to argue is a virtuous, well-meaning, intelligent, and most importantly, Presidential, man.
The scandal sees Hart fuck a litany of women, though it’s Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) who’s afforded a voice, as she shares a particularly incisive moment with Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), as Dixon stares her down following the news that the Miami Herald was going to run a story about their affair. Most of the gestures here are infantile lallations that you’d get from a couple episodes of The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, in what’s a grave simplification of our relationship with media and the trend toward tabloid journalism. There’s a self-consciousness to The Front Runner that wants to examine our contemporary concerns by plundering the past, pointing out obvious examples of history repeating itself as some kind of signal that this is where it all began. Pointing out the origins of tabloid journalism or the connections between politics and Hollywood isn’t new, and repeatedly acknowledging it through the film’s dialogue shouldn’t be worn as some kind of credential of wokeness – it’s transparent and most of all, lazy.
For what it’s worth, Reitman’s filmmaking is more jubilant here than in his previous films. He’s mimicking Robert Altman, particularly in the early passages of the film where we see his camera glide in between hordes of masses in a manner akin to what you see in The Player. And there’s a particularly exciting bit involving Hart’s campaign strategists going over his itinerary, with the dialogue layered and going in multiple directions, intercut with Hart having an economics debate at a university. Compounded with Rob Simonsen’s remarkably percussive, primal score, I was absolutely behind this film as a return to form(alism) for Reitman. But the film gets bogged down. Whether it’s Jackman’s ineffectual performance, the thinness of the film’s scripting, Reitman’s incapacity to probe behind the surface, or all of the above, The Front Runner never captures the magic of its opening passages.
But back to the Tolstoy. In Confessions, Tolstoy, at the end of his rope and prepared to hang, noted the following: “People of our type are in a position where the light of knowledge and of life has broken down the artificial structure, and they have either taken note of this and have left it behind them or they have remained unconscious of it.” Hart, in his hubris, failed to acknowledge the changing tide, remaining unconscious of a shift in public perception and their way of thinking. He got got and to suggest that he was fit to be President seems like a gravely unfortunate revision of the past. Much like Reitman’s previous film, Tully, The Front Runner posits that we need to confront our past and present to render a clearer vision of tomorrow. But, again, much like Tully, Reitman seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with everyone else rather than finding answers within yourself. Kavanaugh did get confirmed, so maybe he is on to something.