Saturday, 17 October 2020

Movie Review: The Front Runner (2018)

A political drama, The Front Runner tracks the rapid fall of a star candidate who seemed to have it all.

In 1984, charismatic Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) loses the race to secure the Democratic nomination for President, but increases his name recognition. In the lead-up to the 1988 election, Hart is the acknowledged front runner not only to secure the Democratic nomination, but also to win the Presidency. Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) leads the energized campaign team, and Hart focuses his messaging on big inspiring policy ideas.

But his marriage to Lee (Vera Farmiga) has been wobbly, and in Miami, Hart meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and they start an affair. He bristles at any press questions about his personal life, and in an interview with A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) of the Washington Post, challenges the media to follow him around. Acting on a tip, Steve Zissis of the Miami Herald surveills Hart's Washington DC townhouse and spots the candidate liaising with Rice. The story explodes, but Hart remains oblivious to the public's unforgiving mood. Lee is understandably furious while Dixon scrambles to salvage the campaign.

Based on a true story, The Front Runner is an inside look at a political campaign initially riding unstoppable momentum, then crashing to a halt when the wheels fall off. Good looking, young and idealistic, Gary Hart galvanized the public and appeared to have a straight shot at the White House. But he failed to grasp the shifting public mood expecting candidates to adhere to strict moral behaviour, and stumbled badly by first entering into an extramarital affair and then fumbling the management of the story.

Director Jason Reitman also co-wrote the script, and derives energy by plugging into the organized chaos of a national campaign driven by young, dedicated, snappy and witty staffers crisscrossing the country, living on fast food in cheap motels. But while sharp and irreverent humour permeates through the film, Reitman does occasionally overplay the glib overlapping sidebar conversations.

Evolving public tolerance levels and critical character flaws emerge as the twin themes combining to knock Hart out of his winning trajectory. While former Presidents enjoyed extramarital liaisons with no press harassment, by 1988 politics and entertainment were converging under the gaze of insatiable television coverage and the rise of gotcha! gutter journalism. Hugh Jackman captures Hart's dour idealism and dogged belief that only his intellect and policy ideas should matter, bristling at suggestions that nebulous definitions of family values could have any bearing on political ambitions. 

With J.K. Simons nailing the unflappable, seen-it-all-before Dixon, Molly Ephraim as Irene Kelly emerges as the most prominent of his team and plays a crucial role in a small but welcome subplot tracking the overlooked fallout of the scandal on Donna Rice. Vera Farmiga shines in a couple of scenes as the long-suffering and wronged-yet-again wife. The rich cast also includes Alfred Molina as The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and Kaitlyn Dever as Hart's daughter Andrea.

Crackling with the electricity of doomed expectations, The Front Runner enjoys scandalous smarts.



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