Schultz reviews: "The Front Runner"
By Carl Schultz “The Front Runner” Distributed by Columbia Pictures, 113 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 6:
There’s a pallor, a sense of sadness and melancholy, which hangs like shroud over director Jason Reitman’s new comedy “The Front Runner.”
It’s the same kind of desolation a person feels when seeing photos of the majestic ocean liner Titanic departing the docks of Southampton in 1912, or seeing footage of the airship Hindenburg drifting lazily through the skies over New York City en route to its 1937 appointment with fate in Lakehurst, New Jersey: The sense of what might have been achieved if a misjudgment, a momentary indiscretion, or one brief moment of irresponsibility had not resulted in disaster and altered the course of history.
In 1988, Colorado Senator Gary Hart was considered by many to be the future of American politicians. An idealist especially inspiring to young voters disenfranchised by the seemingly interminable status quo of Washington politics, Hart eventually came as close as a person can get to being a sure thing for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. Instead, the candidate experienced an almost astonishingly rapid fall from grace when reports surfaced in the national media of his history of extramarital affairs.
Written by political strategist and former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson, director Jason Reitman, and journalist Matt Bai, also the author of the 2014 book “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” which served as the basis for this picture, ”The Front Runner” is advertised as a motion picture comedy in the irreverent tradition of 1972’s “The Candidate,” from the director of such quirky comedies as “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” Instead, the picture with its candid and almost documentary style of filmmaking becomes something akin to an American tragedy, a chronicle of one man’s ultimate and inexorable self-destruction.
In “The Front Runner,” after narrowly losing the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination to former vice president Walter Mondale, Colorado Senator Gary Hart decides in 1988 to run for Presidency of the United States. At first, Hart’s wife Lee and daughter Andrea are elated by the decision. But the subsequent invasions of their privacy and personal lives quickly begin to trouble the family members. The media intrusions are particularly distracting to Hart himself, who can’t comprehend why his personal life matters in the least to an America troubled by unemployment and the economy.
To the annoyance of close staff members and over the objections of his campaign manager, Hart publicly challenges the press and the public to follow him around when he’s not in legislative session or performing campaign duties. He promises the press particularly that his private life “will bore you.” But Hart’s provocation returns to haunt him when suggestive photos are published in the nation’s newspapers showing the senator in the company of a comely young campaign worker.
Although the top-billed Hugh Jackman as Senator Hart has a sort of prickly countenance and rough-hewn charisma similar to that of the former Colorado politician, the actor is never quite successful in persuading the viewer that his performance in “The Front Runner” is anything more than Hugh Jackman in a Gary Hart wig. The impression is augmented in the scenes depicting the Senator’s easy irritation and quick temper.
By the picture’s halfway point, the audience has been conditioned to expect an explosion from the candidate whenever a character diverts his attention, contradicts him on a point, or requests clarification on a personal issue. At his best while standing before a blackboard explaining dry and obscure details of economic recovery, when during a campaign appearance Hart initiates an unscripted interaction with the editor of a newspaper alleging the senator’s personal improprieties, the viewer almost squirms with a sense of impending disaster.
Although the picture is Jackman’s first film appearance since his turn as P. T. Barnum in the vastly entertaining 2017 musical “The Greatest Showman,” his portrayal in “The Front Runner” is more reminiscent of another of his roles: Rather than a viable characterization of an actual American politician, Jackman’s Gary Hart sometimes reminds the viewer of the volatile Marvel comic book character Wolverine traveling the campaign trail.
But “The Front Runner” is very much an ensemble effort. And while Jackman is present in the picture just enough to remind the audience of who’s really the star of the show, the actor himself disappears from the narrative for unusually-long periods of time, particularly during the film’s middle section. And director Jason Reitman has wisely cast in prominent supporting roles some of the best character actors presently working in American motion pictures.
Especially effective is actor J. K. Simmons, appearing as Hart’s campaign chairman Bill Dixon. Part of Simmons’ success as a character actor is the result of the sense of playful gravity he brings to every role he plays. Often cast in archetypal parts you’ve seen played before by other actors in other films, Simmons seems to strive to make a role his own by referencing and redefining past interpretations: The actor plays off other performances and then knowingly satirizes them.
In his epochal performance in 2014’s “Whiplash,” Simmons seemingly channeled every ruthless teacher you’ve ever seen in movies, from Edward James Olmos in 1988’s “Stand and Deliver” to Morgan Freeman in 1989’s “Lean on Me,” blending with them heaping doses of Jack Webb in 1957’s “The D.I.” and Louis Gossett Jr. in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” for good measure. The result was Simmons redefining a tired institution by crafting a definitive performance as a single-minded educator demanding greatness from his students. In the process, Simmons won just about every acting award you can think of, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The actor performed much the same process with many of this other roles. Even in his ubiquitous appearances in the television ads for the Geico Insurance company, Simmons seems to channel every pitchman in the history of television commercials, and then delivers a stylistic coup de grace by compelling the viewer to actually want to voluntarily research their car insurance policies.
As a result of his appearances in popular media, the audience seems conditioned to expect to be enlightened as well as entertained by a Simmons performance. As campaign manager Bill Dixon in “The Front Runner,” Simmons becomes almost the driving force of the movie. In his interpretation of a profession defined by Peter Boyle in “The Candidate” and the real-life James Carville in the 1993 documentary “The War Room,” Simmons seems to create a whole new species of political manager: Sadder-but-wiser, world-weary and cynical, Simmons’ Bill Dixon is a man whose time is at such a premium that he can’t even remember how to be human.
The opposite of Simmons’ performance and acting style is contributed by Alfred Molina, cast here as the legendary Washington Post newspaper editor Ben Bradlee. Despite resembling Bradlee not at all, Molina manages to distill the man’s humor and charm, and his ability to inspire others to their full potential. It’s difficult to believe this is the same actor who’s played roles as varied as Doctor Octavius in “Spider-Man 2” and the scheming Satipo in the 1981 adventure classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Molina’s film debut.
Molina manages to hold his own against other Bradlee interpretations by actors as varied as Tom Hanks, who played the Posteditor as a crafty and scheming old news pirate, to Jason Robards’ Academy Award-winning impersonation of the newspaperman as a paragon of truth, an arid and bloodless one-man Mount Rushmore of American newspapers. In Molina’s portrait of Bradlee as a portly grand old man of American journalism, the characterization falls flat only in attaching a sentimental element to the man, wistfully nostalgic for a past in which he referred to President Kennedy as Jack and presidential infidelities were politely ignored.
The best performance in “The Front Runner” might be contributed by the wonderful Vera Farmiga as Oletha “Lee” Hart, the Colorado senator’s wife. Although the refined and elegant Lee seems at first delighted by her husband’s decision to run for the U.S. Presidency, Farmiga in her empathetic performance paints a portrait of a private woman both wary of her husband’s wandering eye, conflicted about invasive media scrutiny, and eventually disgraced by the public revelations of his infidelities.
Confronted by her husband with the report that newspapers across the country are about to disclose his alleged adultery, the humiliated Farmiga manages to preserve her dignity through the almost dehumanizing media frenzy. And although she assures her errant spouse that she’s won’t make a reconciliation easy for him, the viewer knows from the grace of Farmiga’s characterization that hers is possibly the solitary participant in the tragedy who’s motivated by truth, honor and morality.
The real smoking gun in the entire unfortunate history of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign is barely even revealed in “The Front Runner” — the famous photo of the comely campaign fundraiser Donna Rice wearing a suggestive tee-shirt and perched on the lap of a leering Hart. But even that iconic document might seem fairly harmless, even quaint, in an America troubled by evidence of computer hacking and collusion with unfriendly foreign governments to deflect unfavorable election results.
During an era when a candidate can be elected to the presidency within days of the public disclosure of a tape containing his unmistakable voice describing in graphic terms his aggressive extramarital sexual pursuits and techniques, viewers who don’t remember or are too young to recall the 1988 presidential campaign might be confused by “The Front Runner,” and its relevance to modern times.
But in fact presidential indiscretions have been a contentious issue at least since Andrew Jackson’s 1794 elopement with the not-quite-divorced Rachel Donelson and Grover Cleveland’s allegedly fathering an out-of-wedlock child in 1874. From this perspective, “The Front Runner” becomes fundamentally a curio, an interesting failure. In the picture’s shifting focus and muddled narrative the question ultimately posed by the screenwriters and director Jason Reitman remains unresolved: How much does morality really matter when selecting a president?
Although heavily promoted during the final weeks of the mid-term election in November and released on Election Day, “The Front Runner” actually began an exclusive engagement in only four theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 6, and then expanding on Nov. 16 to 22 theaters in major cities across the United States. The picture opened nationwide on Nov. 21, released to 807 theaters in North America.
The commercial reception of the film has been abysmal: During its opening weekend, “The Front Runner” earned only some $56,000. After drawing only $76,199 during its entire first week of release, the entertainment magazine “Deadline” referred to the picture’s revenues as “horrible when you consider that it’s a limited launch of an awards contender wannabe.” As of Dec. 9, the picture has earned only $1.8 million in box office receipts, unusual for a high-profile picture featuring a performance by superstar Hugh Jackman.
Critically, “The Front Runner” has fared somewhat better, earning an approval rating of 56 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and 61 percent from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes reports, “‘The Front Runner’ exhumes the wreckage of a political campaign with well-acted wit, even if it neglects to truly analyze the issues it raises.”
“The Front Runner” has been rated R for language concerns including more than 30 F-bombs (somebody counted ‘em), sexual references, descriptions of adultery and the use of tobacco and alcohol.