Based on the book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai, The Front Runner is about the real-life rise and fall of American presidential candidate Gary Hart from his rise as a Senator running for the presidency to his fall when reports of an extramarital affair emerged. Directed by Jason Reitman and screenplay by Reitman, Bai, and Jay Carson, the film is a look into a man’s rise-and-fall as someone who seemed like he was full of promise only for a trip on a boat at a party where everything goes wrong as Hugh Jackman plays the role of Gary Hart. Also starring Vera Farmiga, Kaitlyn Dever, Alfred Molina, and J.K. Simmons. The Front Runner is a compelling though undercooked film by Jason Reitman.
The 1988 U.S. Presidential election that lead to the victory of then-vice president George H.W. Bush over the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis yet the person who was the front runner in the primaries was Gary Hart as the film chronicles three weeks in the life of Hart in early 1987 during his campaign and how it all fell apart over news of an extramarital affair. The film’s screenplay opens with Hart’s loss at the 1984 primaries to Walter Mondale as the senator from Colorado would try again in 1988 on a campaign of ideas as he would intrigue a lot of voters who see him as a fresh face. Yet, one lousy decision to attend a party at a yacht would undo everything for Hart as it relates to questions of immorality. The film’s screenplay is straightforward yet it never goes further in its exploration of immorality as it relates to the people not doing enough to get Hart to open up as well as the world of journalism as they realize what must be done to sell newspaper. Though some of the characters such as the famed Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) reveal what has to be done yet he is aware that this is a part of an evolution in journalism whether he likes it or not.
Jason Reitman’s direction is largely straightforward in his compositions though the film opens with a long tracking shot on coverage of the 1984 Democratic primaries and Walter Mondale’s victory as people working for Hart are trying to figure out what to do next. Shot largely on location in the state of Georgia with some of it shot in Atlanta and Savannah with additional locations in Colorado, Miami, and New York City, Reitman creates a film set in a time where everyone was eager for change and Hart as this idealist might be their man. Reitman does create some unique wide and medium shots to get a look of what Hart is trying to do in order to reach voters but also to get a scope at the large ensemble that includes his campaign team lead by campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). The scene at the boat where Hart would meet Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) is more about the party as Reitman doesn’t show Rice’s face until later in the film’s second half as there aren’t a lot of close-ups on her as she is presented as a woman who put herself in a bad situation unaware that things are going to get worse.
Since this is a film about scandal and how it destroys a man’s ambitions, Reitman and his co-writers don’t exactly go all the way into not just exploring the immorality of Hart’s actions but also into some of the seedier details into his affair with Rice. The lack of intrigue as it focuses on journalists printing the story as well as the moral implications that lead the way to tabloid news of sorts does bring the film down a bit as well as provide some scenes where the pacing suffers. Even in the third act with people in Hart’s campaign wanting him to confess his actions though Hart claims that his private life is no one’s business. The film’s climax does have suspense into what journalists ask him as one of them in AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) asks him about his morals as he had asked him weeks earlier during an interview that didn’t put Hart in a good light. Overall, Reitman crafts a fascinating but messy film about the rise and fall of American politician Gary Hart during his presidential campaign.
Cinematographer Eric Steelberg does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography in maintaining a low-key mood for some of the interior scenes as well as emphasize on autumn-like colors for some of the daytime exterior scenes. Editor Stefan Grube does excellent work with the editing in creating some straightforward cuts to play into the drama and some of the dramatic suspense. Production designer Steve Saklad, with set decorator Melinda Sanders and art director Cameron Beasley, does brilliant work with the look of Hart’s campaign headquarters and his homes as well as the look of the offices for the various newspaper buildings. Costume designer Danny Glicker does fantastic work with the clothes the characters wear including some of the casual 80s look that Rice wears as well as Hart’s family.
Hair stylist Lawrence Davis and makeup artist Wendy Bell do nice work with the look of the characters from the look of Hart as well as some of the 80s hairstyles women had at the time. Special effects supervisor David Fletcher and visual effects supervisor Chris LeDoux do terrific work with some of the film’s visual effects as it relates to journalists being on TV as they’re talking to real-life figures as much of it is set-dressing. Sound editor Perry Robertson do superb work with some of the sound in the way a room full of people sound like as well as the raucous sounds of journalists trying to get answers from Hart. The film’s music by Rob Simonsen is wonderful as it does feature bits of low-key orchestral music to play into the drama with some percussive-based music to play into the political aspects of the film while music supervisor Tricia Halloran feature a soundtrack of the music of the times that is played on location as it includes music by Boston, Henry Mancini, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Expose`, the Whispers, and Gene Clark plus a couple of classical piano pieces performed by Vera Farmiga.
The casting by John Papsidera is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles from Mike Judge as a reporter for The Miami Herald, Spencer Garrett and Ari Graynor in their respective roles as veteran Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Ann Devroy who both give Parker advice on ethics, Chris Coy as Hart’s press secretary Kevin Sweeney, Oliver Cooper as Hart’s deputy political director Joe Trippi who spends time with Hart’s wife and daughter during the scandal, Alex Karpovsky as Hart’s advance man Mike Stratton, Josh Brener as Hart’s political advisor Doug Wilson, Tommy Dewey as Hart’s deputy campaign manager John Emerson, Mark O’Brien as Hart’s body man Billy Shore, Kevin Pollak as The Miami Herald editor-in-chief Bob Martindale, and Alfred Molina in a small role as the famed Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee who is aware of what this scandal would do but also knows that he has a job to do whether he likes it or not.
Steve Zissis and Bill Burr are superb in their respective roles as The Miami Herald reporters Tom Fielder and Pete Murphy as the two men who would investigate Hart’s personal life and discover the identity of Donna Rice. Sara Paxton is fantastic as Donna Rice as the woman who sleeps with Hart as she copes with being part of a major scandal while Molly Ephraim is excellent as Hart’s campaign scheduler Irene Kelly who tries to help Rice. Kaitlyn Dever is brilliant as Hart’s daughter Andrea who watches from afar and begins to wonder if everything her father does would ruin the family. Mamoudou Athie is amazing as A.J. Parker as a journalist for The Washington Post who goes on the road with Hart as he asks questions only to upset Hart prompting to find out about Hart’s private life as he asks him some big questions at the film’s climax. J.K. Simmons is incredible as Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon as a man who is trying to run the campaign but is aware of how damaging the scandal is where Simmons displays some humor early in the film but then becomes serious when things do get serious.
Vera Farmiga is wonderful as Hart’s wife Lee though it’s a role that doesn’t get enough coverage despite Farmiga’s performance as she allows herself to maintain some dignity as she watches her life fall apart from afar though it is hampered by how underwritten her character is. Finally, there’s Hugh Jackman in a remarkable performance as Gary Hart as this idealistic senator who is the front runner for the upcoming 1988 U.S. Presidential election until news about his extramarital affair comes into question where Jackman brings a unique presence to a man who is vehemently private and refuses to answer any questions only to alienate those closest to him as Jackman does bring in that intensity of a man who is trying to protect himself only to fall apart because of his own actions.
The Front Runner is a good but underwhelming film from Jason Reitman. Despite its ensemble cast led by Hugh Jackman and some solid technical work, the film is a compelling real-life drama about the rise-and-fall of Gary Hart yet it unfortunately chooses to play it safe leading to a film that is undercooked and not having enough intrigue. Even as the real-life scandal itself is filled with stories that unfortunately does pave the way for tabloid news to become big business as Reitman’s attempt to comment on morality gets bogged down by the drama. In the end, The Front Runner is a stellar but deeply flawed film from Jason Reitman.
Jason Reitman Films: Thank You for Smoking - Juno - Up in the Air - Young Adult - Labor Day -(Men, Women, & Children) – Tully (2018 film) - (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) - The Auteurs #30: Jason Reitman
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