There are a lot of reasons why Jason Reitman remains one of the most interesting directors working today. He’s a younger male director fascinated with providing women with vehicles to stretch their abilities. From Tully, Young Adult, and his masterpiece Juno are undeniably weird movies that would have been tough for any other filmmaker to bring to life. In fact, you can argue most of them would not have been made unless Reitman was a great director. Up in the Air remains one of the few movies of the past two decades to get two women into the Best Supporting Actress race, (Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga). Yet Reitman feels like he can tell bigger stories, and The Front Runner felt like it would be his chance. Unfortunately, due to his decisions to not take a side, the well-made film will likely get lost to time.
The Front Runner tells the story of the 1988 Democratic candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman). Hart, a Senator from Colorado, was handsome, charismatic, and smart. It many ways, he felt like a natural successor to the Kennedy dynasty. The problem, ironically, is that he liked women who were not his wife a little too much. After his affair with a woman on a yacht named “Monkey Business” leaked to the press, Hart went from a likely President to someone who left the political sphere.
Reitman shoots the film from dozens of perspectives, including Hart, several journalists (Steve Zissis, Mamoudou Athie, & Bill Burr), campaign staffers (J.K. Simmons, Molly Ephraim) and his family (Vera Farmiga, Kaitlyn Dever). There are a litany of other cast members in the massive ensemble. Even more surprising, Reitman manages them well, having The Front Runner serve as the introduction to most of the characters in the film. Even some actors or actresses you recognize, such as Ari Graynor, are unrecognizable in their roles. He juggles the cast well, and characters have clear motivations.
Anchoring the whole film is a rather good performance from Jackman, who nails every element of Hart as a character. Jackman brings his movie star charisma to play, showcasing time after time why people would be drawn to him. He brilliantly portrays anger, frustration, and confusion about the situation. After all, the Kennedy’s and LBJ have been crystallized as very sexual politicians. Why should his situation be any different?
Therein lies part of the problem. The movie, scripted by the Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Reitman, never really answers that. What about the changing American media made Hart the catalyst for the paparazzi coverage of political candidates? The novel does work about this issue that the film does not. In the process, we’re left with questions and supplemental reading, which ultimately harms the films ability to tell the story. Furthermore, it presents the events in a way that allows Reitman to avoid taking a side. In another age, this would feel admirable, and potentially thought-provoking. However, we are currently in a political climate that makes the decision feel like a cop-out.
The other thing that is hard to ignore is the film’s depiction of the media. In many ways, it is really relevant to the way journalism is pursued today. The writers feel like they’re part TMZ, part Buzzfeed, and part old-school Washington Post journalism. The journalists aren’t wrong to write the articles they write. The morals and thoughts of a President are an image to the world. Even worse, that predisposition can leave a person open to blackmail or espionage. Having leverage on a sitting President could be disastrous. Yet the based on this film, we get the impression that the journalists are bad people for writing the truth. In a political climate where journalists are actively targetted with acts of violence, this feels like an outdated and irresponsible take. Yet it is nearly impossible to walk away from the film without feeling the press are working to undermine good people in politics. That sunk this film for me.
As for the rest of the work, you have to give a massive hat tip to Eric Steelberg, who does an excellent job bringing the world to life. Steelberg, the DP on the film, shoots the feature as if we’re watching a 1970’s film. The lighting is really cool and helps carry a lot of the visual storytelling elements on display. The literal use of shadows and shining a light on the issues might be heavy-handed, but Steelburg makes every frame visually interesting. The sound work is also brilliant. Mixing together a dozen or so tracks is difficult, but helps gives us an idea of our place in the crowds. It’s a very cool effect so hats off to that team for their awesome work.
The actors and actresses involved are good to okay across the board. No one is as good as Jackman, and Farmiga feels a bit too understated. You can see what she’s going for, but there are times when it feels like she’s sleepwalking through the lines. It wouldn’t feel as off it wasn’t for her previous collaboration Up in the Air, where she imbued subtle line readings with substance. Actress Molly Ephraim should stick with you, and a phone call between her and Simmons is one of the best scenes of the film. Simmons actually might be too good for his role, because history causes him to essentially leave the movie about halfway through. In doing so, we lose a massive piece of what makes the early film work so well.
While The Front Runner will undeniably draw some raves, it should be seen as a cautionary tale. The story of Hart is fascinating, but there is a lot more on the table to explore here. Understanding the importance of strong, principled journalists should be a cause for celebration. Yet here, the media is depicted as a force, hell-bent on destruction no matter the consequences. It’s hard to not think about what could have been here. Sadly, Reitman’s latest is simply too problematic to be one of the best of the year.