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. Now, weeks later, I’m convinced it’s a bit more. Like one of the ballsiest big-studio films made in a long while. Or something close to that.
It’s obviously not a typical Reitman film — it doesn’t deliver emotionally soothings 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.
Said it before, saying it again: The Front Runner is a 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.
It’s coming from the same cinematic gene pool that produced Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Mike Nichols‘ Primary Colors and James Vanderbilt‘s Truth. Similar wavelength, same calibre. And Hugh Jackman delivers a steady, measured, well-honed portrayal of Hart. The whole cast, in fact, 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?
In a nutshell, 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.
Yes, 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.
“A number of recent movies have taken a heroic view of the press,” Scott noted, “in particular the old-fashioned, printed-on-paper kind. Spotlight and The Post, for instance, depict journalists as tribunes of civic righteousness.
“The Front Runner, based on a book by Matt Bai, a former writer for The New York Times Magazine, takes a dimmer view of the fourth estate. It belongs to the accusatory tradition of Ace in the Hole, Network and Absence of Malice, movies that see reporters and editors not as guardians of democracy but as barbarians inside the gates of the republic, subverting its values through cynicism, self-importance and mercenary scandal-mongering.”
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.
In the view of Indiewire‘s David Ehrlich, Reitman’s film “side-eyes the press for whipping the story into a national firestorm.”
I’m telling you that Scott and others are misrepresenting how good The Front Runner is. They really are. It’s an adult, upfront thing — so well-ordered and smartly written, so real-deal. A fastball you have to swing on.
Jackman’s formidable costars include Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart, J. K. Simmons as Bill Dixon, Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee, Sara Paxton as Donna Rice and particularly Mamoudou Athie as A.J. Parker, a diligent Washington Post reporter who covers the Hart campaign.
The Front Runner is about the fall of a flawed but basically decent fellow who was actually rather high-minded when it came to the separation between public and private life. It ends, for sure, on a note of resignation and solemnity. A good man is taken down because there is no private life for a political person and the cameras are everywhere.
The final takeaway, Reitman believes, is that “if you’re someone who experiences shame, you drop out of the race. But if you’re someone who doesn’t experience shame, you stay in and you thrive. We now have a system” — not just a governmental or journalistic or electoral system, he implied, but also a moralistic one — “that favors the shameless.”