Jason Reitman’s second film of 2018 after his critically raved Tully this spring is not being met with quite the same response, unfortunate that a film called The Front Runner looks to be anything but.
The Front Runner follows the rise and fall of Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), who captured the imagination of young voters and was considered the overwhelming front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign was sidelined by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice. As tabloid journalism and political journalism merged for the first time, Senator Hart was forced to drop out of the race – events that left a profound and lasting impact on American politics and the world stage.
Despite what is largely considered one of Hugh Jackman’s best performances, the film fails him.
Nevertheless, given the limitations of the role, Jackman delivers one of his finest performances. He allows us to see the character’s charisma and essential decency, along with a certain solipsism that has undone many leaders. When Hart begins to realize what is at stake, he asks his wife, “Are you leaving me?” and that line, subtly conveying both shame and fear, may be one of the most effective lines that Jackman has ever delivered.
There are so many ways Reitman could have orchestrated this entire retelling: privileging Hart’s version, focusing on how his wife or Rice took it, studying how it affected his advisers and staff, or turning the journalists involved into heroes or villains. Instead, he goes for the all-of-the-above approach, offering a prismatic sense of what happened from all of these various perspectives, the vast majority of them male (reconciliation scenes with Farmiga are the most powerful, although they’re almost certainly made up).
In Reitman’s hands — which are confident and clumsy in equal measure — these hefty matters play out as a mordant political comedy that tries to split the difference between “Veep” and “All the President’s Men.” That’s a tough needle to thread, and it doesn’t take long before “The Front Runner” throws in the towel on that idea. After an energetic and character-driven first act, the movie dulls into a talky civics debate that flattens every member of its massive cast into lame totems for the respective ideas each of them is meant to represent.