‘Topical’ and ‘timely’ are two of the most overused words in both film marketing and film criticism, and as a portrayal of salacious political scandal, The Front Runner has had those two words thrown at it since it premiered at Toronto. In fact, as a story that vilifies the press and shows a charismatic politician brought low by one alleged affair whilst real 2018 politics have no accountability at all, it really isn’t all that topical or timely. That doesn’t stop it, though, from being rather good. An incisive character study and critique of politics as theatre, Jason Reitman’s second film of 2018 is his best since Up in the Air.
In 1987, America was all set to elect Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), a forward-thinking, young-for-a-politician Democrat who crossed divides with his full head of hair and ability to make politics accessible for all. Yet, come the 1988 election, former CIA head (and future neighbour of Homer Simpson) George HW Bush won the White House, setting the US up for a truly dismal political dynasty that would come to incorporate the Iraq War and many other disasters. The Front Runner takes a look at the exposure of the marital infidelity that cost Hart his campaign, the first time the press had so personally investigated a presidential candidate.
With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, Hart’s loss plays as a tragedy, but in the moment it’s more of a farce. The Miami Herald was the first paper to break the story, and with Bill Burr as the face of the publication, laughs are guaranteed. Reitman and his co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson also make sure to keep things balanced, not casting Hart as a full-on hero or tarring all the journalists with same brush. Hart’s womanising humiliated his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), left his mistresses open to attack, and forced his female staffers into distressing, uncomfortable moral compromises.
While the Miami Herald is the film’s antagonist, as far as it has one, The Washington Post, represented by idealistic reporter AJ Parker (Mamadou Athie, who played Grandmaster Flash in the underrated The Get Down) is shown more as a victim of the public’s demand for ever more sordid stories. When Hart and the press come to blows, it’s invariably fantastic, the conferences easily the best scenes in the film.
Clamorous noise, flashing lights, and a sea of grasping hands and flapping mouths make for dizzying viewing, and Reitman perfectly evokes the ‘oh shit oh shit we’re losing’ panic that sets into the Hart campaign. Jackman is very impressive in a role quite unlike any he’s taken on before, the self-righteous fury growing behind Hart’s eyes as his position becomes shakier and shakier. He’s close to exploding at any given moment, and watching him bitterly rattling off economic points as the elephant in the room is pointedly ignored is oddly gripping. Athie does an effective job in his first major film, and JK Simmons is memorable in a small, talismanic part as Hart’s campaign manager, but Farmiga’s role is pretty flat.
Reitman’s sharp, pointed writing is a good match for the story, underlined by an unintrusive but enjoyable score. There are moments where the sound mix is a bit muddy, but never at a point where it would actually impact the story or obscure the best of the script or Jackman’s performance. As a newsroom drama, it has echoes of The Post from last year, but this is a far zippier and more entertaining prospect and its political story is compelling and intriguing. It may not be able to explain the current political moment in America, but asking it to is unfair, and the question it raises of how much personal indiscretion we can endure for the sake of good policies should be one discussed long after you’ve left the cinema.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by; Jason Reitman, Matt Bai, Jay Carson
Starring; Hugh Jackman, Mamadou Athie, Vera Farmiga
Runtime: 113 mins
The Front Runner releases in the UK on 25 January 2019