THREE STARS In the late 1980's, Gary Hart was a serious contender for the White House. Then scandal broke.
Hugh Jackman, J.K. Simmons
You would have had to be paying very close attention to have any memory today of Gary Hart. As he bulldozed his way toward the White House in the late 1980’s, he was the Democrat’s rosy future. The legacy of Reagan would be swept away, progressives would take charge and George Bush would become one of history’s lesser side notes. How quickly things can change. And for Hart, that change took less than three weeks during which time he turned from the man who would be, into the man who never was.
Of itself, the implosion of Gary Hart is a gripping story. He was taken down by a sex scandal that he, and his handlers, had no idea how to control. The firestorm threw him out of contention and gave Bush a free pass. Put that in the frame of consequence - how the right wing went on to dominate US politics and how the media revolutionised its treatment of scandal - and the story of Hart becomes truly fascinating.
Yet for all the appeal of Hugh Jackman’s gripping central performance (as Hart he’s never less than attention grabbing), or the lively direction by Jason Reitman (JUNO), THE FRONT RUNNER doesn't ignite the way want it to. Partial blame lies with a cohort of mumbling costars who, charged with driving narrative, let much of the detail fall to the floor. There’s also a reluctance by Reitman and the rest of the writing team to come down hard on their own conclusions, expecting the audience to do the drawing itself: that’s not the way these things work, especially given how much the rules of political and media engagement have changed in the past thirty years.
Whilst THE FRONT RUNNER is a solid, entertaining and thoughtful film, it’s also a curiously bloodless one. It’s an experience totally at odds with the story it’s telling. Passions may run deep but they stay inside the cup when you actually want them all over the walls if we’re to really feel the consequence of what happened here. As with Hart’s election campaign, timing will do THE FRONT RUNNER no favours either. It will get people talking but inevitably, any conversations about political legacy will soon drift to that other film and sadly, like Hart, it will come up wanting.