Freedom of the press is under verbal and even physical assault by an administration and political party whose chief authority fancies himself above the law. So maybe it’s not a kosher time for a film about holding media’s feet to the fire. About 1987 presidential front runner Gary Hart’s combustible campaign over the course of three weeks, The Front Runner is a good movie hamstrung by the current moment. With a crack ensemble and a timely message about news media’s descent into infotainment, filmmaker Jason Reitman is once again at the cinematic forefront of an issue people aren’t ready to find.
Altman influences abound, roaming cameras flitting between characters and various conversations, revealing the cool water-cooler jargon of campaign hustlers and pool reporters, all following a trail they hope will lead to the White House. Hugh Jackman is stoically capable as the man on the trail, and magnetic as an idealistic politician, one stubbornly longing for privacy in an era of ever-increasing scrutiny. Vera Farmiga, Katelyn Dever, J.K. Simmons, and Molly Ephraim are equally poignant as a collection of people in Hart’s family and inner circle, wanting to trust yet always questioning. Kevin Pollack and Alfred Molina pop up as newspapermen with ethical quandaries and financial thresholds to clear, and as a grinder for the Miami Herald, comedian Bill Burr plays himself to riotous effect, providing the film’s brief moments of comic spark. Sara Paxton, so good in Last House on the Left only to disappear for many years, is so good again as the other woman in question. Her and Ephraim share a few scenes together in the back channel of a media frenzy, as the latter stewards and comforts Donna Rice before an inevitable crash-course in public humiliation. Reitman is better at that, tracing the collateral damage to Rice and Hart’s wife Lee Ludwig, than he is at exploring Hart himself. Jackman is relegated to supporting for long stretches, writers Jay Carson and Reitman preferring to circle the wagon on fire than look inside. We learn a wee bit about his policies and inner life and a well lot about his personal one, imitating the media priorities Reitman and co. are intending to criticize. Between TMZ following bread crumbs laid by Jason Wohl and CNN breathlessly covering every White House tweet, Reitman is right to come down on the press and the public’s appetite for sleaze, just not amid revoked passes and replenished fascism. Like the social media commentary of Men, Women, and Children, it’s simply unfortunate that Reitman is so ahead of the curve.
Some have called for less ambiguous principles, suggesting that Front Runner fiddles between going after Hart and going after the heartless media’s abdication of personal privacy. While he doesn’t shy away from the personal toll on tired loved ones, one final slug line says “Gary and Lee Hart remain married to this day,” clearing up any notions of unwanted ambiguity. This is a clear rebuke of the twenty-four hour news cycle that feeds on libel and scandal, that has devolved into a circus of entertainment over information, and celebrity over factual circumstance. It’s a right message at exactly the wrong time.