Live long enough and you may see a movie for every headline. That hasn't always been the case (filmmakers have yet to tackle the Teapot Dome scandal) but it's become true of our post-Watergate political history, as political differences come closer to baseball-team rivalries than ideological discussion, and the "media event," once a pejorative lamenting the commercialization of politics, has simply become a synonym for any political campaign.
The Front Runner is the latest installment in the contemporary round of You Are There films. It looks back to "the week politics went tabloid," to borrow the subtitle of journalist (and co-screenwriter) Matt Bai's 2014 book All the Truth Is Out. In the spring of 1987, as candidates were making their initial gestures toward what would become one of the most sordid presidential campaigns in history (until the next one), Colorado Senator Gary Hart commanded the titular role in the Democratic party, the man most likely to challenge Vice President George Bush in the next election. Hart was at the center of his party's young and unconventional wing, known for hanging out with movie stars and, the rumor mill had it, star-struck young women.
When the Miami Herald got a tip that Hart was seeing a former beauty queen named Donna Rice, reporters were dispatched to stake out Hart's Washington townhouse. They watched Rice enter, didn't see her leave and drew their own conclusions. The Hart campaign soon sputtered out, brought down by the headlines and what was perceived as the candidate's hubris in challenging the press to investigate his personal life, assuring them they would find it uneventful.
Directed by Jason Reitman, The Front Runner is a lively depiction of the unwinding of Hart's campaign, set mostly within the offices in which volunteers and jaded advisers try in vain to subdue a tidal wave of gossip. Reitman is aiming for the spirit of the much-quoted 1972 film The Candidate and Robert Altman's TV series Tanner '88, which remains one of the greatest satires of our unsteady electoral process. That's tempered by an extravagant layer of television clips and '80s nostalgia — perhaps fitting for the story of a politician whose 1984 campaign had been undone by a reference to the "Where's the Beef?" commercials for Wendy's.
The film is dominated by Hugh Jackman's strong performance as Hart, which strives less for imitation than for capturing his personality. In the film's account, Hart is emotionally unsuited for a scandal like this, believing — a little self-righteously — that even discussing the Rice story is beneath the dignity and gravity of politics. His less-than-realistic insistence that he can run for a public office and still preserve his privacy creates chaos in both elements, leaving his wife (Vera Farmiga) and campaign manager (J.K. Simmons) equally shaken.
With the candidate unwilling to address the controversy, the press seems almost helpless, compelled even against its own instincts to concentrate on triviality and gossip. Was Hart (who denies to this day that his relationship with Rice was sexual) the victim of a change in the social climate, or was the media simply lowering its sights? The Front Runner missteps in trying to play it both ways, defending Hart's privacy against boorish tabloid mentalities but also keeping a reserve of moral outrage over his behavior. Reitman enjoys recreating the frenzy of a political campaign (for those running it as well as those covering it), but when it comes to making sense out of the whole affair, The Front Runner falls short, with a weak, unconvincing climax that rests on Hart and his wife talking things over. In the end, the candidate's call for a higher bar in media coverage, no matter how disingenuous, is set aside and the view of the film is reduced to an understated moral judgment.
Thirty years later, much of what happens in political discourse has become louder and increasingly grotesque. Media events and photo ops have turned into reality TV and pop-up-ad platforms. Did Gary Hart's maybe-they-happened dalliances open the door for today's levels of gossip and misinformation, or was he the last one trying to hold them off? The Front Runner tells his story, but leaves the meaning up in the air. Does it say much about the knotty worlds of politics, news and entertainment, or is it just another loose string?