‘The Front Runner’ (2018) | Film Review

November 24, 2018 (Last updated: August 8, 2021)
M.N. Miller 0
Film, Film Reviews


The Front Runner is more about the birth of tabloid political journalism than a docudrama. Why has a film that is so focused on driving home the failings of the media come during the current administration’s effort to silence it? Entertaining, uneven, and questionable.

Much has changed in the last 35 years, so much so that the right to privacy has been directly tied to technological progress. If you ran for president in the 1980s, you couldn’t be videotaped or have your picture taken by someone in the street with a smartphone. Social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter didn’t exist, and those pictures couldn’t be uploaded for everyone to see then share. The internet was just invented in 1983 but didn’t take today’s form of the worldwide web until around 1991, so you couldn’t Google anyone. So, chances are, if you saw a man pass you on the street, you would have no idea he might be running for president, and you wouldn’t even know he might be The Front Runner for the Democratic nomination. You also wouldn’t know the woman draped on his arm while walking down the street wasn’t his wife.

Gary Hart was supposed to be the next JFK. Young compared to previous US presidents, a forward thinker. He loved to talk about education and how every home should have a computer to help America’s youth in the ever-growing competitive world (ironic since Hart lived in a world where he demanded privacy, yet championed new technology that would make privacy more of an option, almost a thing of the past and always at your fingertips).

The ’90s were about to be upon us. The web was about to explode. Hart was young enough to bring a sense of vitality that past presidents lacked. He said we are all explorers, and there was still work to be done. However, Hart was traipsing around as a family man but refused to let anyone inside his private life. Rumors of Hart’s infidelity were always there but ignored old school rules.

Everyone knew JFK had affairs, and he gave them a glimpse of his life by announcing he was going to be a father, combined with the fact that tabloid journalism wasn’t acceptable by real newspapers then. What made Hart different was he wouldn’t play the game, offer a glimpse, even a tiny sliver, and newspapers couldn’t sell enough copies to read about policy initiatives anymore. So, they went searching, the unspoken code of respecting someone’s private life went out the window, and Hart found out you can’t have it both ways. The old guard realized that someone else would, and newspapers need to be sold if they don’t.

Director Jason Reitman wants you to ask the question: is this fair or isn’t it? Should a man be professionally judged by his personal failings, or if his personal judgment is under fire, shouldn’t his professional judgment be as well? Even though Hart appeared to have the nomination locked up early, the film barely scratches the surface of his relationship with his wife. It doesn’t look at his other scandal where his campaign owed more than 1.4 million dollars to creditors (today, this is a 30-second spot, 35 years ago, this was a considerable chunk of change).

Gallup polls showed that most Americans disapproved of the media’s reporting of the scandal and felt a person’s private sex life was no one’s business. The problem with that is polls lie, and as much as they disapproved of it, that didn’t stop them from buying newspapers reading about them (which would be the final 10 years of print media’s last stand, since newspaper sales during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal had the record highs versus identical polls of the Hart scandal disapproving of it).

Gary Hart, while bringing a new era of educational thinking in the era where political journalism and tabloid journalism would become one for the first time, took one for the team that eventually inoculated America to Bill Clinton, who you could argue would have never been president of the Hart scandal didn’t break years earlier. Which all makes The Front Runner such a confounding experience. Matt Bai, the chief correspondent for New York Times magazine, adapted from All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid and covered three presidential campaigns.

His book was viewed as an astounding critique of his own industry. Yet, in the age of political journalism under fire by today’s administration (most recently CNN correspondent Jim Acosta being banned from the White House), the film takes such a one-sided stand against the media’s reporting you need to ask the question if this is the first big Hollywood film to be released during the Trump presidency influencing Hollywood big business and deep pockets? Is that a bold stance, a naive one, or a nefarious one?

The film centers on a tremendous performance by Hugh Jackman, who, since his career peak (and still his best) performance in Prisoners, continues to show the chops to play various roles outside Wolverine. He can depict Hart’s considerable charm while still showing you warts and all, while by the end, he appears broken. His performance helps Reitman’s downward spiral of films that included Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children (admittedly, I have not seen Tully yet) stop with The Front Runner; that doesn’t mean his film is on the level of his great works like Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Juno, and Young Adult. Unfortunately, it settles for somewhere in between.

Reitman’s film will be mistaken as a docudrama on an important political figure born out of the mistrust of seventies politics. Ultimately, his career died because of it. The film is a drama about the supposed birth of tabloid political journalism, and the Hart campaign was merely a backdrop. Unfortunately, the uneven narrative of focusing on seedy journalism and turning a blind eye to an in-depth look at Hart’s personal life makes for a nonobjective view of the scandal. While entertaining, The Front Runner is uneven and questionable. Therefore it can’t be taken seriously as an authority on the subject matter.

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