The unheralded benchmark for political dramas

There wasn’t much happening at the box office this past weekend, which was surprising for late November. However that seemed to be the case, as the only new wide releases were a pair of horror-tinged films which, judging by public response, failed to generate excitement, in spite of some very fervent support.

In lieu of offering up an alternative to either title, I thought I’d give a shout out to one that’s been lingering about for a while; Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner. The true-life political drama stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart in the retelling of the presidential hopeful’s 1988 campaign which was run into the ground in the wake of a hugely damaging sex scandal.

The Front Runner has been curiously absent from the conversation this awards season despite some kind reaction from critics, most of whom bestow plenty of praise onto the film’s star. In telling Hart’s story, The Front Runner aims to both show the emergence of the tabloid media while also offering up a portrait of what happens to a man who gives himself fully to the political world. It’s a subject matter highly worthy of cinematic treatment(perhaps today more than ever) and one which hopefully rises to the cinematic ranks of the similarly-themed, yet oft forgotten The Seduction of Joe Tynan.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, the 1979 film stars Alan Alda as Joe Tynan, a senator from upstate New York who has the balance of family man and politician nailed down pretty well. His loving wife Ellie (Barbara Harris) is content with her work as a psychologist and Joe has plenty of friends up on the hill. When he’s approached by a southern councilwoman named Karen Traynor (Meryl Streep) to support the blocking of a racist nominee to the supreme court, Joe agrees, in spite of the fallout it may cost him politically. Things take an even heavier turn for Joe when he begins falling for Karen and finds himself in a world he never thought he’d be in.

Although a number of political films have tried to dissect that world and those who exist within it, The Seduction of Joe Tynan is one of the few which relies more on the strength of character dynamics than on plot mechanics. This is certainly clear from the film’s title, which gives signal to the life-changing journey its central character will find himself in. There are in fact two seductions within the film. The first is the more practical one, in which we see a happily married politician enter into an affair with a younger woman. Watching the scenes in which Joe and Karen seduce each other shouldn’t be as lovely as they are. But there is something about these two people who are both as turned on by each other as they are over their shared excitement of the world they exist in that conjures up its own kind of magic. The other seduction is the rise in profile Joe is given as a result of his liberal ways, including (and especailly) going against the aforementioned nominee. Watching himself on TV and hearing those around him tell Joe that he’s got nowhere to go but up in his political career, proves just as intoxicating as one would expect it to be for the character. Even as Joe struggles to maintain a hold on his affair, his soaring career and the family he loves, The Seduction of Joe Tynan remains a look at the changing of a man who perhaps never thought could be changed.

The film really shows both its intelligence and curiosity when it comes to the women of The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Alda’s script and Schatzberg’s direction takes two female figures who so easily could have been seen as caricatures and gives appropriate time and effort to talk about who they really are. In Ellie, we see the dutiful wife who has weathered the campaign trail and is proud to stand by Joe’s side when she needs to. But there’s no questioning that she has forged her own path, making a life for herself as a psychologist after seeking treatment for herself. Ellie is proud her life and believes that she and Joe have found a balance that works for the two of them to feel fulfilled. It’s when Joe decides to take his aspirations further when all the resentment and bitterness Ellie thought she was rid of when it came to being a political wife comes to the surface. Through Karen, we likewise see another woman who has given herself to politics, by plunging into it on her own accord. As a councilwoman whose own father was a politician, Karen’s life has been shaped and by that world; so much so that she seems to know very little of herself apart from it. When she meets Joe, she sees her ideal man as defined by the political realm; someone who is as hungry and idealistic about that world as can be. Joe excites Karen, but her sense of self-awareness reminds her of the very limited space and time she will be able to be a part of his life for.

The three leads in The Seduction of Joe Tynan couldn’t have been more pitch perfect for their roles. Only Alda could have pulled off the title role of Joe, playing him not as a louse, but as someone who got swept away by the current of the political sea and is trying to keep his head above water. It’s a beautiful performance with Alda at his most soulfully conflicted. Similarly, there are very few actresses of Harris’s skill who could’ve elevated the traditional wife role and injected such a character with the kind of depth and vivacity that the actress brings to Ellie. Thinking of Harris always conjures up feelings of intrigue at her unclassifiable talent and sadness when it comes to her rather limited film output. The Seduction of Joe Tynan may have been one out of a small handful of movies the actress ever made, but it’s one of Harris’s best turns and the one most deserving of an Oscar nomination. As for Streep, The Seduction of Joe Tynan had the unfortunate luck of being released the same year as her much-heralded work in both Manhattan and Kramer vs. Kramer, making her performance here all but forgotten. But make no mistake, the young actress honed her eventual knack for both accents and characterization in every one of her scenes, while making her romance with Alda as compelling as it could be for the audience to feel it.

Critical reception towards The Seduction of Joe Tynan was rather positive, with many praising the performances as well as Alda’s wonderfully-written debut screenplay. The film also managed to make a bit of money at the box office, collecting a modest, but profitable sum in the busy summer season of 1979. Even so, the film was curiously absent from the Oscars come the following awards season, despite its cast collecting a number of critics awards along the way.

It’s hard not to note the current-day parallels to be found within The Seduction of Joe Tynan, especially the issue of a politician favoring segregation being put forward as a nominee for the supreme court. For many cinephiles however, the film represents something of a curio. Not only does it offer up some early Streep brilliance, but it combines the talents of both Alda and Schatzberg. The former of course honed his talents as a writer on his popular series M.A.S.H., while the latter instantly became one of the most experimental filmmakers of the early 70s with titles like Puzzle of a Downfall Child and The Panic in Needle Park. The Seduction of Joe Tynan represents a meeting in the middle of two ends of the industry, taking the best of both artists’ behind-the-scenes abilities to create an intelligent and compelling look into an area of society always worth exploring.

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