“It’s a process that supports the shameless” said Canadian director Justin Reitman in a recent interview with ReasonTV about the modern election cycle. It’s hard to imagine in an age of 24-hour news and social media that there was once a time where the private lives of public figures was considered off limits and separate from their public life. Over time, questions were raised about just how much privacy those who held public office deserved. It is this very conundrum that sets off the plot of Reitman’s latest film, The Front Runner, a re-telling of Democratic candidate Gary Hart’s ill-fated 1987 run for US president.
The film starts off with the Colorado Senator (Hugh Jackman) having just kicked off his campaign. With a media-friendly image and forward-thinking ideas, Hart seems like the shoe-in for the Democratic nomination. But when his candor gets the best of him when he challengs reporters to “follow him around”, his regular rendezvous with a young woman (Sara Paxton) who is not his wife (Vera Farmiga) are soon noticed by reporters of the Miami Herald.
Hart refuses to comment after being confronted by the Herald reporters outside his home but the paper runs the story anyways. The dam is soon broken with first the Washington Post, then every other media outlet picking up the story, casting a pall over Hart’s campaign. Despite the urgings of his campaign manager manager Bill (Reitman-regular J.K Simmons), Hart refuses to confront the story fearing it will set a frightening precedent for future political races. But with the media circus continually hounding both his campaign and his family, Hart must make a choice that will define the public’s relations with their elected officials forever.
The Front Runneris a period piece, but has a lot to say regarding modern political and cultural discourse. We live in a time where there is virtually no line between public and private life. Social media both rewards and punishes us for sharing our lives with the world. The film raises a lot of questions about how much a person’s private life has to do with how their job is performed, especially when representing the public.
Jackman proves once again to be the finest actors of his generation. He plays Hart as a passionate, inspiring, yet flawed human being. His shades are as grey as his hair and fit the film perfectly. The supporting cast including Simmons, Farmiga and Paxton are all excellent with Mamoudou Athie standing out as the fictional Post reporter A.J Parker who struggles with the ethics of what he and his colleagues are reporting on.
Reitman stages the action strongly at first, plunging us deep into campaign stops and meetings, evoking fly-on-the-wall campaign docs like The War Room. He does mis-step closer to the film’s conclusion which not only ends on a note we all saw coming (hard to avoid being being a true-life story) but wraps up so abruptly that the audience is left more puzzled and dissatisfied than intrigued. A faulty ending can do a lot to hurt a film and unfortunately impacts this otherwise solid drama immensely.
Ultimately, The Front Runner plays as a sort of younger brother to higher-stakes newspaper thrillers like All the President’s Men and The Post (all coincidentally feature Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee). It’s non-committal stance will either play as refreshing or frustrating depending on the audience. Perhaps the story would have been better served as a ten-part mini series, allowing the issues to be more fully explored and expanded upon.
The Front Runner is currently playing in theatres across Canada