After his forays into more melodramatic territory resulted in the less-than-stellar Men, Women & Children and Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is something of a return to form. It’s a benefit to the writer/director too that the story in which he is working with is suitably ripe with interest and (given the abundance of scandals that currently circle the US Presidency) relevance.
Said story revolves around 1988 Presidential hopeful Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman). Handsome and charismatic, Hart seemed like a new generational JFK, and was once touted as the strongest candidate running against George Bush in the election. Focusing on the three week period that ultimately proved his undoing, there’s a topical irony in watching Hart unravel as the press caught wind of his extra marital affairs, and so crumbled his campaign.
Initially the film lays dialogue and politics on thick, so you’d be forgiven if either your interest waned or you started to assume The Front Runner was going to be all talk and no action. Thankfully though Reitman, and his co-writers Matt Bai (whose book All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid is the basis of the film) and Jay Carson (the political consultant on TV’s House of Cards), settle into their own groove and when Hart’s affairs – specifically one involving a model (a likeable Sara Paxton) hoping to get a leg up in the marketing side of political campaigns – become the centre of the film, it proves particularly investing.
Perhaps one of The Front Runner‘s strongest assets is its depiction of the media. Though they played a major role in derailing Hart’s campaign, Reitman never specifically demonises them either, presenting the respective members of the press relatively conscientiously; Mamoudou Athie is particularly affecting as a young journalist caught between his admiration for Hart and his journalistic responsibilities.
Ultimately, The Front Runner is Jackman’s movie through and through, and whilst his performance occasionally sniffs of Oscar bait, it’s the strongest he’s appeared on-screen in recent memory. It’s a quieter, slightly more dignified turn from the star, and whilst Hart as a person is responsible for his downfall at the end of the day, Jackman injects him with enough humanity to evoke a sense of sympathy as he suffers through the allegations; Vera Farmiga is also fine as Hart’s supportive (though not blind) wife.
Though void of any of the usual quirky humour that Reitman often peppers throughout his own work (see Thank You For Smoking and Up In The Air) The Front Runner is nonetheless an entertaining feature that works as both an inside look as to how fragile an illusion power ultimately is and a historical lesson in a political tale that feels all too familiar.