Jason Reitman’s dull but dutiful checkbox biopic rakes over the long-dead ashes of the run-up to the 1988 US Presidential election but fails to find anything to really say beyond a milquetoast critique of the current personality politics which dominates American public life.
Charting the rise and fall of charismatic Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), “The Front Runner” follows his run for the Democratic nomination for President, to face off against George H W Bush, showing how he captured the imagination of young voters and the general population only to see his ambitions come crashing down when allegations of an extra-marital affair brought tabloid journalism and political journalism crashing together in a moment which changed American political life forever.
Although the film lovingly, almost slavishly, recreates its late 1980s aesthetic, its preoccupation with the superficial extends further to its characters and plot. It plods through the sequence of events, restaging key moments and replicating the requisite sound bites but there’s a curious lack of drama to any of it and certainly no insight. If you’re not overly familiar with who Gary Hart is or what he stood for before seeing this film, you’ll not end up any wiser by the time the final on-screen caption informing you that Gary and Lee Hart (Vera Farmiga) remain married to this day (as if that’s what should be the important takeaway from the story). Indeed, it’s so keen to push its low-key portrayal as a white Obama some twenty years before a similar message of hope would galvanise the same demographic constituency to propel another young Democratic Senator to the White House that it almost entirely fails to hold Hart to account for his hubris and hypocritical sanctimony.
It may seem quaint, especially nowadays, for the mere suggestion of marital infidelity to be enough to derail Presidential ambitions and there’s certainly a story to be told about the [ultimately inevitable] unholy alliance of duplicitous tabloid puritanism and serious political reportage which crept into the mainstream with these events but Reitman seems disinterested in really exploring it.
Jackman does good work as the senator but the role doesn’t particularly stretch him because the script offers little to no insight into the man himself, often referring to his preference to avoid discussing personal matters as if it excuses the lack of personal insight in this kind of biopic. And if Hart is poorly served, the supporting cast – including pivotal figure Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) – are barely explored at all. The dialogue is often flat and uninteresting, with even veteran character actors like J K Simmons and Alfred Molina struggling to bring any life to proceedings.
Lacking the sharp political writing of the likes of Aaron Sorkin and seemingly completely uncertain as to what point it wants to make, “The Front Runner” might have had aspirations to be the next “The Post” or “All The President’s Men” or even “The American President” but, unfortunately, like its subject, its ambitions are undone by its own shortcomings.