THE FRONT RUNNER Aimed to Remind Audiences…and Nobody Listened

“I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

The first time I had ever heard Gary Hart’s name was during an episode of The Golden Girls. In the clip, an overworked Rose Nylund (Betty White) is so scrambled, she’s about to leave for work in her pajamas. When a side character asks what it is Rose does for a living, acerbic Dorothy Zbornak (Beatrice Arthur) comments, “She’s Gary Hart’s campaign manager. It doesn’t pay much, but at least you don’t have to get out of bed to do it.” When I first saw the episode in my teens, I didn’t know who Gary Hart was. Yet, I just assumed by the set-up and punchline in the scene, that he was a politician who has gotten caught up in a sex scandal big enough and notable enough to get made fun of on a popular sitcom. If a generational gap meant that Hart was unknown to me, the act of him being made fun of was not. For as long as I could remember, public figures and their headline-grabbing antics had always proven to be ripe fodder for sitcom writers, leading to some potent comedy which managed to both score laughs and serve as time capsules. Watching that episode of The Golden Girls, I had assumed such a joke was par for the course. However, as Jason Reitman’s largely-ignored film The Front Runner so deftly explores, it was in actuality a definitive milestone in American culture.

Directed by Jason Reitman from the book by Matt Bai, The Front Runner explores the swift political rise of Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) as he quickly becomes the expected Democratic nominee for the 1988 presidential campaign, winning over everyone in spite of his unorthodox campaign methods and overall somewhat stand-offish demeanor. The film also looks at the development of the story that detailed a presumed extramarital affair involving Hart, which would quickly end his White House hopes and change the relationship between politics and the media forever.

It would be fairly understandable to assume that The Front Runner is just another biopic/modern period piece/“ripped from the headlines” type of affair (no pun intended). Yet beyond presenting one of the most well-documented lessons in both judgment and morals, what the film so subtly and expertly does is pinpoint the shift in journalism when the scandalous met the political. The journalists in The Front Runner certainly play a part in vilifying the man they helped topple down from the mountain in the way they took just enough information which, at best, could be considered credible-ish, and used it to both bring down a popular political figure and sell newspapers. The movie spends plenty of time looking at the creation of the story in question; not so much from Hart’s perspective, but from the journalists themselves. We see frustrated Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) receive the anonymous tip which would set the ball into motion; we watch as he recruits fellow newspaperman Pete Murphy (Bill Burr) as they ineptly stakeout Hart’s house, construct their story from the limited pieces of information, and try not to become overwhelmed by the excitement and danger of the territory they find themselves venturing into. But The Front Runner doesn’t show these figures as the enemy, but rather as newspaper men hungry for a scoop, unaware of how their actions would eventually turn the tide in the world of reporting for many years to come. Reitman’s film ends up straying from the central narrative only slightly by spending a little too much time with the journalists as the film progresses. Yet by doing so, he allows them to make a case for themselves as well as reassess what is perhaps the most crucial element of their profession; namely, their duty in making those with power accountable for their actions, including themselves.

While The Front Runner wastes no time in recreating the media’s part in taking down the movie’s main subject, it also doesn’t shy away from showing Hart’s own participation in his very public fall from grace. Even before the scandal, Hart was seen as an enigma, known just as much for his revolutionary political ideas as he was for an aloofness he was never able to shed. We see this in the film through montages, including one showing Hart talking about a future involving technology and terrorism and another which shows him growing increasingly impatient and uncomfortable during a photo shoot. Reitman captures the character of Hart perfectly. To him, he is the man at the center of the storm, inadvertently complicating things by doing nothing but condemning the press’s treatment of him while fervently refusing to acknowledge any question regarding infidelity and effectively hanging himself out to dry in many people’s eyes. Hart gives Jackman what could be his most demanding performance to date as he portrays a man clinging to principles of the past as an uncontrollable future sweeps through in a maelstrom few ever recover from. The actor admirably and magnetically captures the real man’s struggle to exist in a landscape he’s eager to leave a mark on while conveying the frustration of being lost in a firestorm. “This campaign is about the future. Not rumors, not sleaze, and I care about the sanctity of this process, whether you do or do not,” exclaims an enraged Hart to his campaign manager (J.K. Simmons) as he tries in vain to battle the scandal which is destined to overtake him. As much as the media is shown to have been complicit in the events it portrays, The Front Runner’s most intriguing feature may be its complex protagonist — a figure who, in some ways, orchestrated his own downfall almost as much as the reporters did merely by staying true to himself.

The ostracized politician never admitted to the affair, but that’s not what The Front Runner was ever about. Following the dashing of his political dreams, the real-life Gary Hart went back to his law practice, chaired a number of national security committees under the Clinton administration, taught as a lecturer, and wrote a number of books, including a biography of James Monroe. However, freedom from the scandal in the eyes of the public has continued to elude him. It’s easy to underestimate the far-reaching aftermath of what the events surrounding that week the story broke did to the life of Gary Hart. In fact, it’s the only aspect of The Front Runner that rings hollow given how carefully examined the other elements of the film are. The story on Hart changed the tenor in the way individuals, be they part of the media or part of the public, absorbed and perceived news reports on a scale of “sexiness.” Perhaps The Front Runner doesn’t need to examine the long-term effects of what Hart had experienced. The audience knows it; they’ve felt the change for years in stories of Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and a shared cynicism towards those in positions of power which, thanks to the events of 1988, is here to stay. In today’s political world, potential candidates are vetted and virtually shunned for charges ranging from marijuana usage in college to literal hugs deemed inappropriate decades later, as Donald Trump, whose own track record of scandal puts whatever Hart was accused of to shame, holds the presidency hostage. Maybe therein lies The Front Runner’s biggest accomplishment as a film, away from the box-office returns and awards acclaim it conspicuously never received; it doesn’t tell us that we’ve changed, but rather reminds us that we have.

The Front Runner is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Home Entertainment.

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