Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.
This week, Hugh Jackman plays the role of politician in The Front Runner, which tracks the incredible true story behind Gary Hart’s doomed presidential campaign.
A Lot Can Happen in Three Weeks
Spring. 1987. After just missing out on the Democratic nomination four years prior, Colorado Senator Gary Hart officially announces he’s throwing his hat back into the ring for another run at the White House. He enters the race with a 12 point lead over his nearest competitor. When a tactical misstep with a reporter exposes a potentially damning indiscretion, Hart is about to find out that being the front-runner means having your entire life on display … and that a lot can change in just a couple of weeks. Welcome to Jason Reitman’s skillfully executed political biopic The Front Runner.
Now We Know Who We Are
Let it be known that one should use the word “biopic” lightly in regards to The Front Runner. Yes, the film is based on real people. And yes, it covers actual events that comprise a well documented moment in the history of American politics. If there’s a flaw in the way Reitman’s film approaches its overarching narrative, it’s that The Front Runner focuses the bulk of that narrative on Gary Hart himself. As the film frequently points out, Hart was a true believer that his private life should remain private. With little to work with outside of Hart’s public persona, Reitman and Jackman fail to humanize the charismatic politician enough to make the Senator’s downfall feel like anything more than a professional tragedy.
That’s not to say Jackman doesn’t do good work in The Front Runner. Quite the opposite, in fact. In one of his finer non-Wolverine roles, Jackman delivers a potent turn as Hart, bestowing on the character an easy-going charisma and razor-sharp intellect that makes it easy to understand why so many people clamored to prop the man up, even as his downfall became more and more inevitable. As it happens, it’s the film’s supporting players (Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Molly Ephraim, Tommy Dewey, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, amongst others) who do much of the humanizing for The Front Runner‘s not-quite protagonist. Meanwhile the film’s opportunistic pool of reporters (Mamoudou Athie, Steve Zissis, Kevin Pollak, Bill Burr, Alfred Molina, and Ari Graynor) are equally eager to demonize what some perceive as just another, “man with power and opportunity” taking advantage of both.
Though Reitman and Co. wisely refrain from preaching to the proverbial choir about the perils of sensationalist journalism, it’s never in doubt which way they’re leaning. After all, the film’s prickly narrative – which many believe to be the moment when the business of journalism (even from well-respected outlets) officially began to give way to tabloid styled sensationalism – demands a strong point of view on the topic. While the words “fake news” are never uttered in The Front Runner, the film’s depiction of just how that style of storytelling merged into mainstream media is sure to resonate no matter what your political beliefs may be. Just FYI – the film is also surprisingly non-judgmental on the topic of politics (though it does take a couple of delicious pot-shots at the myth of Reaganism’s successes). Of course, that approach also leaves The Front Runner feeling a little bit toothless in today’s heated political climate.
Though The Front Runner is lacking in bite, Reitman still manages to tie the project together in an exquisitely stylish bow. Said bow borrows heavily from the stylistic works of political films from the ’70s (i.e. All The President’s Men, The Candidate, Network). The films of Robert Altman serve as a key influence as well, with Reitman frequently using overlapping dialogue, long takes, and immaculately executed pans and zooms to cast a chaotic ethereality over the proceedings. He bolsters the mood with a dash of gritty, claustrophobic hand-held camera work that drags you into the gutter right along with Hart’s political ambitions.
Still, as well acted and meticulously executed as every single frame of The Front Runner clearly is, there just never feels like a genuine need for it to exist. As we continue to be bombarded by the relentless hyper-activity of the 24-hour news cycle, one has to wonder if the same can’t be said about political dramas in general.
Here’s the thing, The Front Runner is an extraordinarily well crafted movie. One that also features pitch-perfect performances from a truly first-rate cast. Unfortunately, its story feels a bit obsolete in the current political climate. For the record, that’s not the fault of Reitman or anyone else involved. More than anything, it’s proof of just how difficult it is for any film to truly compete with the political absurdities citizens are exposed to by the hour these days. So yeah, if you’re just looking for a solid piece of filmmaking, The Front Runner will more than suffice. If you’re looking for something more, we’d urge you to pick up a paper and take a long hard look at the world instead. And for f**k’s sake, get out there and vote, people.