I’d feel dumber about calling THE FRONT RUNNER “Oscar bait” if it wasn’t marketing itself so aggressively as such. It isn’t big or bold enough to stand a chance against this year’s cinematic darlings, and yet, I can’t think of any reason for the movie to exist. It’s a star-studded, by-the-numbers political biopic with vaguely topical overtones, a strong lead performance, and a November theatrical release. A departure from director Jason Reitman’s typical formula, THE FRONT RUNNER certainly checks all the boxes requisite for making the shortlist of the Academy Awards. What THE FRONT RUNNER doesn’t include are most of the essentials for creating a compelling, memorable film, and like its titular subject, it consequently feels doomed to obscurity as soon as its 15 minutes of fame expire.
THE FRONT RUNNER follows the lead-up to the 1988 Democratic Presidential Primary, where Colorado senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is poised to beat Michael Dukakis for the party nomination. After a report from the Miami Herald exposes Hart’s affair with a young woman, the charismatic politician self-destructs in the limelight while his campaign staff (led by J.K. Simmons) scrambles to pick up the pieces.
If Reitman’s latest excels anywhere, it is Jackman’s quixotic portrayal of Hart. As a small-town guy with big-city dreams, Hart fails to realize that serving in public office means leading a public life. One of the tradeoffs of vying for the most powerful office in the world is that nothing you do can be private anymore; it doesn’t matter if you have a strong platform or are a master of rhetoric—image is what ultimately determines the winner. Hart’s inability to comprehend this crucial fact leads to some outbursts of righteous indignation from Jackman that are almost heartbreaking in their clueless sincerity.
It’s a shame then that Reitman makes it so difficult to appreciate this performance. Hart is presented more as a victim than an anti-hero—as if a politician who disrespects his wife is the most sympathetic figure for an audience to get behind. Yet of more pragmatic concern is the sensory overload in how information is delivered to the viewer. In what I took to be an effort to recreate the overwhelming buzz of paparazzi, reporters, and aides, THE FRONT RUNNER hurdles through scenes with reckless abandon, dumping lines by the sheaf at every opportunity. It’s not that THE FRONT RUNNER is too difficult to follow, but rather that its dizzying speed dehumanizes its cast. While the movie revolves around Hart, and plenty of things happen to him, he isn’t allowed to be a character in it.
THE FRONT RUNNER is plagued by other issues—predictable narrative beats and a forgettable supporting cast—but focusing on the campaign itself might be Reitman’s biggest blunder. I won’t pretend that my tragically millennial sphere of knowledge was aware of who Gary Hart was before I walked into the theater, but everyone knows how the story ends. Hart and his vision for America were never going to make it to the White House, so framing the central drama around that lost cause makes the conflict irrelevant.
Had the movie continued beyond Hart’s capitulation, showing how he attempted to reconcile his personal brand of ethics with his new life outside of politics, Reitman may have been onto something. Better yet, how about shining a light on all the innocent people who got caught in the crossfire? The girl who was dragged under national scrutiny for Hart’s mistake? Or the numerous campaign staffers who staked their careers on Hart’s campaign? The most compelling character in THE FRONT RUNNER is Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), the Herald journo who breaks the scandal, as he compromises his already-flimsy scruples and resorts to tabloid gossip in order to keep his head above water in the rat race that’s print media.
It IS a great performance, but 95% of the movie is Jackman making this face
Thanks to Reitman’s breakneck pacing, however, Fiedler and everyone else involved in the controversy are treated as disposable plot devices rather than fully-fledged characters. There’s definitely room for commentary regarding the thematic allusions to the real world of politics, where lives are destroyed for personal profit or reputation, but the flip-side to that is the resulting movie becomes as tedious as the network newscasts it emulates.
I know the kind of article THE FRONT RUNNER wants me to write: If a handsome, strapping, popular, charismatic liberal can lose the presidency over an indiscretion with a woman, why can’t the same be true for the big bad orange meanie currently sitting in the oval office? Unfortunately, this is one question I can’t be bothered to humor. Not because of the frivolity of Reitman placing one philanderer on a pedestal to drag another, mind you, though that would be a good enough excuse on its own. No, it’s simply impossible to take this drama seriously when it is more concerned with generating buzz than actual conversations.
Centered around a skilled orator hustling for the national spotlight, Reitman’s biopic is more autobiographical than he’d probably care to admit. THE FRONT RUNNER’s only political aim is to gather Academy votes, and its dedication to that before all else is exactly what will seal its fate when the list of Oscar nominees is finally released. Sorry Jason, I love your work, but THE POST was not proof that dry politik can thrive in the current awards climate, only that Spielberg has a lot of friends in the industry. You’ll have better luck with TULLY anyway.