Less than ten minutes into my first viewing of Jason Reitman‘s The Front Runner, I knew it was at least a B-plus. By the time it ended I was convinced it was a solid A. It’s not a typical Reitman film — it doesn’t deliver emotionally moving moments a la Juno and Up In The Air. It is, however, a sharp and lucid account of a real-life political tragedy — the destruction of former Colorado Senator Gary Hart‘s presidential campaign due to press reports of extra-marital womanizing with campaign volunteer Donna Rice.
The Front Runner is an exacting, brilliantly captured account of a sea-change in press coverage of presidential campaigns — about a moment when everything in the media landscape suddenly turned tabloid. Plus it feels recognizable as shit. I immediately compared The Front Runner to Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Mike Nichols‘ Primary Colors and James Vanderbilt‘s Truth. It is absolutely on the same wavelength and of the same calibre. Hugh Jackman delivers a steady, measured, well-honed portrayal of Hart, but the whole cast is pretty close to perfect — every detail, every note, every wisecrack is spot-on.
Why, then, are some critics giving Reitman’s film, which is absolutely his best since Up In The Air, the back of their hands? The Front Runner easily warrants scores in the high 80s or low 90s, and yet Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic aggregate tallies are currently in the high 60s — over 20 points lower than they should be.
I’ll tell you what’s going on. Critics can be cool to films that portray journalists in a less than admirable light, which is what The Front Runner certainly does. The Miami Herald reporters who followed Hart around and broke the Rice story are depicted as sleazy fellows, and the relationship between the Miami Herald and Hart is depicted as deeply antagonistic, especially on the Herald’s part. Hart screwed himself with his own carelessness, but the Herald is depicted as being more or less on the same level as the National Enquirer.
You can bet that on some level this analogy is not going down well with certain critics. Remember how Vanderbilt’s Truth (’15), a whipsmart journalism drama, was tarnished in the press for portraying the collapse of Mary Mapes‘ faulty 60 Minutes investigation into George Bush‘s National Guard history and alleged cocaine use? A somewhat similar dynamic is happening right how.
The problem that some critics seems to have with The Front Runner is that, in the words of Indiewire‘s David Ehrlich, “it side-eyes the press for whipping the story into a national firestorm.”
From HE pally and World of Reel correspondent Jordan Ruimy: “I caught The Front Runner. You are dead-on about this movie. The mixed reviews it’s getting don’t do it justice. This is a timely story because it’s about a paradigm shift that happened in the world of media. 24/7 news cycles were starting to dominate and people were hungry for news, even if it meant the sleaziest kind. There’s also this great subplot about [the diminishment of] a woman’s worth, not just in politics but any job in America. You were correct in your assessment of this.” [Here’s Jordan’s review.]
The Front Runner screenplay, based on Matt Bai‘s “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” and co-written by Bai, Reitman and Jay Carson, portrays Hart in relatively sympathetic terms — a guy who sadly screwed himself out of a shot at the White House over a mere dalliance but who had a real point when he argued that the media’s supermarket tabloid fixation on a sexual side issue that meant nothing and was nobody’s business to begin with was by far the greater mistake or misstep. Jackman makes you feel the rage about this.