Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina. Directed by Jason Reitman.
It’s no coincidence that films about previous political scandals are becoming popular, last season saw The Post, about the press finding out something about an unpopular president and using it to ruin their career. Now this season sees two films, one about a bullheaded Vice President with ideas above a fairly stupid President and The Front Runner about how sexual scandal ruined the presidential aspirations of one man. Is there something in the air? (haha, Trump, fart joke, we’re classy at No Majesty).
The Front Runner is an interesting proposition, following three weeks in the political world in which Gary Hart, Democratic senator for Colorado was poised to become the 1988 Presidential winner when his entire political career was derailed by an affair.
Jason Reitman had a string of great movies in the form Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult, but then hit a slump with Labor Day and Men Women & Children, yet with the one-two punch of Tully and The Front Runner he’s found his groove again.
Reitman channels the late Robert Altman in style and wit with his roving camera, and in co-writing crafts a film that looks at all angles of the film. There is clear anger in Reitman on show that only thirty years previous a political career was derailed by scandal when now a man with many affairs, many wives and many offensive comments.
It’s an interesting choice to get Hugh Jackman for the lead role, having previously said goodbye to anti-hero badass Wolverine and then charmed audiences with problematic showman P.T. Barnum it’s an interesting proposition – one of Hollywood’s most charming men as the politician that had everyone placing their bets. The irony is that while Hart was almost Kennedy-esque in his good looks, and youth, he still fell back on old fashioned ideas – that politics was about policies and not about personal approachability.
Here the film hits its stride but also it’s problem. There’s no doubting the ability of Jackman to have us engage with people, he has charm to spare and while Vera Farmiga does well as his wife Lee, the real stand out is J.K. Simmons as his campaign runner Bill Dixon. There’s some laughs to be had in the film, not least when Simmons witheringly refers to himself as “a Bill, because I’m an adult, only kids are called Billy.” But the film sidelines a very important issue – the affair.
There’s a nobility in not going for easy answers, but it almost goes too political in not saying anything, even the budding friendship between campaign worker Irene (Molly Ephraim) and Hart’s mistress Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) feels a little undercooked with the question of abuse of power never fully being explored. Again one of the things that Reitman so clearly is fired up about is how affairs can derail or sully the reputation of democratic politicians – Bill Clinton’s presidency was nearly ended by his own scandal, and yet the current President has had numerous affairs, including a very public one with an adult film actress and yet nothing is being done.
There is however a central enigma to the film which is the question of why Hart refused to accept the way the world was going – it was a time when politics became tabloid and yet for a young, progressive potential President Hart could not get his hat on about talking about himself – the film raises the question, does he refuse to answer personal questions because of his secrets, or because he refuses to be a part of the new wave. Ultimately the film doesn’t have an answer, nor does it know what to do with the looming questions of the alleged affair.
What remains is a very well put together film, with a compelling central performance from Jackman and an utterly intriguing problem at it’s core – sadly, like life, there aren’t any answers that can be extracted.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.