Do you remember when a major politician could cheat on his wife and no one would cover it because political journalists felt it wasn’t their business? I don’t, and that’s probably because the Gary Hart scandal happened when I was four. Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner plunges into the question about whether the private lives of public servants should be made public, and it does a solid job of making the case that while our media may have become more tawdry, it also finally held men accountable for sleazy behavior. Although the movie tries to offer up Hart as a counterbalance to raise the question of whether his private life is anyone’s business, his indignation comes off as whiny and self-serving rather than a principled belief.
After coming in second for the Democratic nomination in 1984, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the obvious front runner for not only the Democratic nomination in 1988 when the film takes place, but to outright win the Presidency. However, as the movie notes, a lot can change in three weeks, and that’s exactly what happened with Hart when Miami Herald reporters discover an attractive woman coming and going from Hart’s Washington, D.C. townhouse. When confronted by the reporters about his relationship with the woman, Hart’s refusal to answer questions ignites a debate both in the campaign and among journalists about whether Hart’s private life should be up for discussion.
Reitman revels in the nitty-gritty of both the journalism world and the campaign world. Characters frequently talk over each other, there are false starts, screw-ups, and it all feels incredibly natural and lived-in. It almost feels like Reitman is doing a riff on the documentary The War Room but with more control over characters and conversations. It’s in these scenes where the film really comes alive, and you can see a different film where Hart is almost a background character to the machinations of reporters and staffers. But movies cost money, so there needs to be a big character, and Hugh Jackman is how you fund the story of a washed up politician from 1988. But Reitman never loses sight of what he’s really trying to explore, which is how the news media needed to change and adapt.
Although there’s a bit of a glaring oversight that the reason the media felt it needed to change was because it had whiffed so badly on Nixon and Watergate (Woodward and Bernstein chased down a story lots of other reporters missed), the film still keeps its focus on reporters wrestling with whether or not Hart’s personal life is in bounds. For Hart, he believes he only needs to talk about issues and ideas and that should be enough, and you can see reporters skittishly avoiding whether they should even raise the issue of Hart’s separation from his wife (Vera Farmiga) even though the couple had reconciled. Watching journalism change, grow, and develop into something more controversial but also more potent is exhilarating, and it’s the best aspect of The Front Runner.
Unfortunately, you also have to deal with the Hart scenes. Jackman plays the character well, showing off Hart’s quick wit and why he was the front-runner in the first place. The problem with Hart is that he’s ultimately not very special. You can walk out of The Front Runner thinking that if reporters hadn’t dug into Hart’s affairs, they would have found it with another politician eventually. It’s not like Hart was the first or the last politician to cheat on his wife, and just because he truly believes in “the process”, you get the sense he believes in it because reporters looking the other way serves him best, not because he believes that privacy is an essential value.
Eventually, you can see Reitman taking the side of the press because of how it intersects with how men treat women. Although it has a female character literally spell it out, the point is worth making that men like Hart, men in power, need to be held accountable because they treat women as disposable. I would go even further and point out that Hart’s behavior showed that he preferred doing what was easy (sleeping around) rather than doing what was right (being faithful or getting a divorce). The Front Runner doesn’t say so much that the media became inarguably better, but that it certainly shouldn’t bow to the whims of men like Gary Hart.
What I like best about The Front Runner is that it’s not only an enjoyable watch filled with terrific actors, but also that it’s a movie that will have you talking afterwards. It has ideas that are worth discussing and still incredibly relevant. You may disagree with Reitman or you may think he makes his points well. You may find Hart to be a tragic figure where we potentially lost a great leader because of juicy revelations about his private life. But no matter how you look at it, it’s definitely worth telling, and Reitman does the story justice.
The Front Runner hits theaters on November 6th.