During his campaign to become the Democratic candidate for President in 1988, U.S. Sen. Gary Hart is derailed by an extramarital affair.
Gary Hart is not the first Golden Boy to fall from grace, and he obviously wasn’t the last, but his political sex scandal 30 years ago was the big bang in the game-changing tabloid era.
That’s why “The Front Runner” is so fascinating – it was all in the timing and the technology. Director Jason Reitman has smartly constructed this political drama with interesting layers so that it isn’t a movie based solely on a punchline.
The writing is sharp from seasoned journalist Matt Bai, whose book, “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” is the source material, and political strategist Jay Carson, who wrote for “House of Cards,” along with Reitman.
Nodding to the immersive style of Robert Altman, Reitman presents different viewpoints as the camera captures a political-circus swirl – consultants, campaign staffers, reporters, paparazzi and the public, peppered with smart dialogue.
Those who remember 1988 recall the notorious photo published in the National Enquirer, where Donna Rice is sitting on Hart’s lap while the yacht, “Monkey Business” is in view. But the photo showed up in the National Enquirer after Hart had already dropped out.
That became the take-away. However, Reitman approached this subject with more depth, tackling it not unlike director Michael Ritchie’s trilogy on competition/winning – “The Candidate,” “Downhill Racer” and “Smile.”
Oh, the irony that toppled a charismatic, intelligent and experienced candidate who was ahead of Vice President George Bush by nearly 10 points.
Hart wanted to talk issues and didn’t see why his personal life should matter. Here, his arrogance emerges as rumors of his womanizing surface. He soon learned the fallout from satellite trucks, 24/7 news cycle and public consumption.
And now, candidates are not held to the same standards. And newspaper editor decisions have changed, too. Every aspect is spot-on, from the newsrooms, campaign busses and late ‘80s media landscape.
In one of his best internal performances, Hugh Jackman captures the moods and mindset of Hart, who disappeared from public life after his defiant withdrawal from the race.
The supporting cast, one of the best ensembles in a Reitman film since “Thank You for Smoking” in 2005, features headliners J.K. Simmons as Hart campaign manager Bill Dixon and Alfred Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, with a slew of familiar faces. In brief roles, comic actors Kevin Pollack and Bill Burr are delightful.
Gender politics comes into play here, and while more of a factor in contemporary America, it can’t be ignored. Vera Farmiga plays Lee Hart as smart, strong and not a victim, and Sara Paxton is a sympathetic Donna Rice, caught up in a sticky situation playing out nationally. Memorable is Molly Ephraim as campaign worker Irene Kelly, assigned to shelter Rice from the storm.
Meticulous in detail, gripping in delivery, “The Front Runner” is a conscientious film looking back through a lens where circumstances still push buttons.
Did it alter history? Bush goes on to beat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in a landslide, and four years later, Democrat Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, is elected, re-elected in 1996 and impeached by the House in 1998 for perjury and one count obstruction of justice.
Clinton’s vice-president Al Gore would win the popular vote but lose to George W. Bush in a Supreme Court decision in 2000. In 2008, presidential candidate John Edwards, John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, would be charged with campaign finance malfeasance while trying to hide an extramarital affair.
And if I started to list all the sex scandals of the current president, it would take up way too much space.
As the adage goes, politics makes strange bedfellows.
Reitman takes aim and tries to make sense of what happened then, shedding some light on what’s happened since.