When reflecting on the thwarted ambitions of Gary Hart, a Democratic candidate for President in 1984 and 1988, two moments immediately spring to mind. The first is a primary debate in 1984, when the eventual nominee, Walter Mondale, waved off a string of generalities Hart was making about small business and encouraging entrepreneurship: "When I hear your new ideas," Mondale said, "I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef'?," referring to the then-ubiquitous Wendy's commercial campaign. The second is a National Enquirer photo of Hart on a dock in Bimini, with Donna Rice, a model over 20 years his junior, sitting on his lap. The photo was mere confirmation of what was already known — the scandal over the affair had actually ended the campaign abruptly weeks earlier — but it remains Hart's political tombstone.
Jason Reitman's The Front Runner, a thoughtful but enervating film about Hart's spectacular three-week flameout in '88, sees his story as a tectonic shift in American politics, when sound bites and sensationalism wiped out a more relevant debate about the country's future. Based on Matt Bai's book All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid — Bai also wrote the script, along with former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson and Reitman — the film succeeds in making this point a nuanced one, accounting for Hart's genuine personal failures along with the diminished quality of reporting and public argument. It's a cold take in a world of hot takes — if, perhaps, a reminder of why hot takes draw more readers.
Adding a goofy hairpiece to his already significant mane, Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a man of substance and immense political talent whose private life was a little murkier. And, to his mind, off limits. After losing to Mondale in the '84 campaign — okay, maybe "immense" is too strong a word to describe his political talent — Hart emerges as a formidable contender in '88, when the Democrats had a golden opportunity to beat back a weak Republican opponent in George H.W. Bush, who was selling a continuation of Ronald Reagan's policies with less charisma. The early scenes bottle the energy building around Hart, who projects a youthful vigor that attracts voters and a quality team, led by campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, a Reitman favorite since Juno, spits fire as usual).
Things start to go haywire, however, when news of Hart's infidelities burble up from the tabloid swamp. Word circulates that Hart and Rice (Sara Paxton) were introduced on a Miami party yacht called, of all things, "Monkey Business," and traditional newspapers struggle with the question of whether this affair, and his reputation for womanizing, is relevant to his presidential fitness. A Miami Herald reporter (Steve Zissis) certainly thinks so, and pressure grows on The Washington Post and its editor, Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) to follow up on it. To that end, the Post assigns cub reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) to stay close to Hart on the trail, but Parker isn't eager to turn over this particular rock.
With its buzz of overlapping dialogue and half-uttered witticisms and barbs, The Front Runner recalls Robert Altman's landmark fake-documentary Tanner '88, which offered a fictional candidate to run against the backdrop of the real campaign. Yet Reitman doesn't come to that style as naturally as Altman, who spent a career leading huge ensembles through semi-improvisational scene-making, and the lines go flat, like the banalities of a CNN panel transformed into on-the-ground utterances. It's possible that Hart's scandals are simply too quaint to arouse in 2018, when the current president stands accused of paying off a porn star, but Reitman mistakes seriousness for the absence of urgency.
The hectoring tone is a problem, too. The Front Runner makes the reasonable point that maybe Hart should have been held accountable for his betrayals and hypocrisy, despite the willingness of his put-upon wife (Vera Farmiga) to absorb them. The issue of how men in power treat women brings the film into the here and now all the more robustly, but the tone is hectoring and opportunistic, with none of the true pop of American politics. One lesson learned from the great political dramas and satires like Tanner '88 (or The Candidate or A Face in the Crowd or Primary Colors) is that these battles are fought with bare fists and claws, by the candidates and the press. The received wisdom of a middling newspaper editorial just isn't going to cut it.