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Review: "The Front Runner"

by Chris Feil

Fresh off of delivering exacting holistic wisdom with frequent collaborator Diablo Cody in this past spring’s Tully, Jason Reitman is already back and pivoting hard into political commentary with The Front Runner. Detailing the combustion of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign due to the outting in the press of Hart’s not-so-secret affairs, the film stars Hugh Jackman as the prideful candidate fatally underestimating the public’s association between his character and marital fidelity. Reitman and cowriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson cover the unraveling in stringent attention to the timeline, while angling this as a key breakdown in the separation of political media consideration and tabloid press.

The result is something unintentionally passive, a film about a political candidate flailing against public expectations he refuses to assuage. The film itself is equally headstrong about satisfying on its own rather limited terms...

Reitman is often passing off the hat of our focus, aiming to approach a confrontational media, Hart’s hardworking campaign team, his mistress and wife, and Hart himself with equal footing. If the aim is to present an American tapestry of equally ill-prepared and complicit parties that initiated our contemporary hellscape of politics as entertainment, then The Front Runner is a bit too tidy to be impactful. Its flatness is forgiveable, its history lesson purely watchable.

The film is almost encumbered by its modesty, favoring stylistic and narrative width rather than depth. Reitman has a host of influences and themes at play where maybe one or two could suffice, the cumulative effect of its many threads reducing the lessons of the story to the most obvious. This dulls the edges of its astuteness and begs for a film centered on any one of its vantages, one that allows the tone of its subdued aches to fully take hold. Any of The Front Runner’s sharpness or effective narrative punches still land, but they evaporate quickly.

Though each member is given a strangely strict framework in which to work, the ensemble provides its own flashes of insight. The strongest player is Vera Farmiga as Hart’s somewhat estranged wife Lee, disarming in her grace and patience coping with a media circus she never asked for. Though the film perhaps sells Hart’s other woman Donna Rice short, Sara Paxton’s performance does the heaviest lifting of showing the human cost of a rabid media. Jackman is fascinatingly cast off of his anonymous everyman persona, somewhat challenging and then ultimately deferring to it just as Hart held his own line. Rounding out with the likes of Alfred Molina and J.K. Simmons, the film is a little caught between casting exactly the kind of performers you want to deliver this Sorkin-chasing material and a distracting imbalance of too many familiar faces.

The Front Runner is efficient, if uninspiring. What the film really lacks is nerve and decisiveness in how it wishes to condemn our contemporary climate. But Reitman’s definitive human grace does help the film from becoming a reductive misfire.

Grade: B-

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Reader Comments (6)

"Its flatness is forgiveable, its history lesson purely watchable." You could say that about a lot of Reitman films.

November 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

I'm still mad at Gary Hart for this. If he'd just kept in his pants, we would have had a proper progressive to clean up after Reagan, rather than four years of Bush followed by the moderate Dem presidency of Bill Clinton. It's entirely possible he would have picked someone like Al Gore as his running mate, and we'd have had a voice for climate change with a president who would have done something about it.

November 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

@John T:

I hear you, but the simple fact is that Hart is human, and had his flaws. It's just gruesome to think about how much things have changed since his heyday, isn't it. Look at the grotesque thing that's inhabiting the White House right now, with its shameful history of sexual abuse. Ugh.

November 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I love the poster. Very 70's

November 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I'll give it a shot. I quite liked Men Women & Children, thought Labor Day was slightly underrated, and Tully was one of the best this year.

November 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTr

I haven't seen this one yet, but it seems from the review that this is real missed opportunity to comment on the current political landscape and how we got here. Well, at least Reitman has Tully.

November 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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