Words and talking


Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

You're pointless, 'The Front Runner'


An indication of how “The Front Runner” perceives viewers’ intelligence appears onscreen just a few minutes into the film, in case viewers want to find something else to do before it is too late: “Gary Hart is about to enter the presidential race with an overwhelming lead over every other candidate. He is the front runner.” Wait, so having a lead over every candidate makes him the front runner? That definitely was not clear from the previous sentence, or from the title of the movie being “The Front Runner.”

The onscreen text then adds one more line: “A lot can happen in three weeks.” Even more than the preceding statements, this suggests just how out of touch this movie is, attempting to use a 30-year-old true story to comment on today but instantly existing light years away from a world in which a ton can happen in one afternoon, much less three weeks.

Maybe the point, as directed by Jason Reitman from a script by the filmmaker and first-time screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson, was to be as earnest and clueless as Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman). In 1988, he has the straightforward idealism and political momentum to be not just the presumptive Democratic nominee but is already viewed as the expected next U.S. President, with not much concern given to President Reagan’s VP George H.W. Bush or Hart’s Democratic opponents. “Dukakis? That’s not going to look good on a campaign poster,” says Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), in case anyone misses the movie’s capitalized, glowing message that Hart might have been great if not for those pesky questions about sexual encounters while separated from his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). And that very well may be true. But the film declines to challenge Hart’s naiveté, thinking that he can just answer questions with “I don’t think that’s relevant” and do whatever he wants when he is not speaking in public or preparing to do so. And especially at a time when the U.S. president’s standard response is uniform defensiveness and refusal to answer any questions no matter the factual evidence presented, Hart’s single-mindedness does not play as innocently as intended. “The Front Runner” really misses an opportunity to capture politicians as multi-faceted people and examine the mess created when the public is unsure what matters and media organizations may or may not become political paparazzi in a competitive, 24-hour news landscape.

After all, it is not as if this story is not relevant. Three decades after Hart ended his candidacy following the controversy over his relationship with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), there remains an avalanche of pertinent questions to ask about the intersection of politicians, media and the public: What type of private conduct speaks to a politician’s eligibility as a candidate and leader? What type of information should the media be working to uncover? How does this impact the kind of person that runs for office in the first place? How and why has what the public actually cares about in this regard changed? As politics very slowly becomes less dominated by white men, will that also result in fewer sex-related scandals? Does that even matter when cultural discussion is such that many people have spent less time analyzing the downfall of Anthony Weiner than they have chuckling over the word “weiner”?

But as a portrait of power, investigation and the society that processes the results, “The Front Runner is absolutely not “All the President’s Men.” It is not even “The Post.” Rather, “The Front Runner” disappointingly offers at best a surface-level and redundant reminder that these issues exist, and at worst a muddled retelling of a story that cannot get a handle on character motivations and how they contrast with what is or is not to be expected from a Senator, a reporter or an editor. As Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr) of the Miami Herald sniff out Hart’s secret rendezvous with Rice and Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) asks awkward questions about Hart’s marriage and later presses him on infidelity, Reitman struggles to establish a point of view about conduct (and “open to interpretation” is not enough here). The story the Herald runs with is awfully thin; was this the result of a trend in that direction in terms of political coverage, especially with the increasing presence of TV news? When Bradlee laments that holding or skipping a story that others are printing and talking about will only make the Post look bad, is the suggestion really that there has been no higher ground or variance among even the most respected publications in the country when it comes to tabloid-esque material?

More importantly, it is unclear what Hart’s problem is, and why he is not more careful. He seems very skilled at successfully answering challenging questions, yet when something is lobbed at him regarding his personal life he is flustered and unprofessional. It would seem that his huge staff (including frequent Reitman collaborator J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon) would have done a better job to prep him at every stage. Or perhaps Hart suffered from arrogance or simply his own idealism, believing that his perception of what should matter in politics would be accepted by those who initially sought to know more. Or maybe he could not resist temptation or falling into the same mistakes repeatedly, a la Weiner, no matter what the possible consequences.

Rather than shading these ideas, “The Front Runner” just watches as Hart plays dismiss/deny/dismiss, newspapers chase leads and each other and viewers wait for something they know will topple over to eventually do just that. Meanwhile, Ari Graynor is saddled with the role of “Female voice of reason” as Washington Post reporter Ann Devroy, speaking truth about how people should care about how male politicians respect women, acted well but written as “eat your spinach.” (Though she gets a good line when, after colleagues say she would not be happy with the politicians left if all the moral offenders were gone, she responds, “I’m not thrilled now.”) Only in fleeting moments does the film come alive, like a well-designed, uninterrupted shot of Hart warming to Rice as she emerges into his view on a boat, or Hart demonstrating his natural calm as he helps Parker through turbulence during a flight. Paxton brings vulnerability to Rice but is still forced to say, oblivious to the double-entendre, “I like his positions,” the writers attempting humor and contradicting the movie’s effort to endorse Rice’s intelligence. It is clear both that the world of 1988 is men-first and that there are plenty of ways in which that still exists in 2018.

But anyone looking to understand the relationship between Rice and Hart (who, the movie notes in a single line of postscript, remains married to Lee) is in the wrong movie. “The Front Runner” wags its finger at emphasizing the supposedly wrong parts of a politician’s life while failing to emphasize the right details of its story and lacking perspective on what might happen if, say, a politician’s campaign included him bragging about sexual assault. “Some things may be interesting,” Hart says in his speech announcing the end to his campaign, “but that doesn’t mean they’re important.” The movie about him approaches something important and refuses to be interesting.


This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.

Matt Pais