A period piece that's still relevant, The Front Runner reflects on the scandals of Gary Hart

The man who wouldn't be king: Hugh Jackman is uncanny as disgraced politican Gary Hart.
The man who wouldn't be king: Hugh Jackman is uncanny as disgraced politican Gary Hart.

Jason Reitman's latest film, The Front Runner, is a retelling of the story of how Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart was scuppered, in the final few weeks before the election, in his 1988 bid for the White House by revelations of an extramarital affair. Thirty years on, this is extremely relevant, an enraging yet ironic reminder of how we got to the point where a reality-show host could possibly be elected president of the United States.

As portrayed with compassion but also more than a dollop of causticity by Hugh Jackman, Hart here is a complicated, flawed, but probably mostly decent man, at least grading on the curve of male politicians in the 1980s. He was very progressive politically, all about the "big ideas" that would lead America — and perhaps the world — into a brighter future. It is almost indisputable that he was going to be president in 1988, and it hardly bears thinking about what the nation and the planet might be like today if, for just one thing, we had had a pro-environment president in the White House just when the warning sirens were starting to go off about global warming.

But the world was changing. JFK had gotten away with his mistresses in the 1960s. Suddenly — like, out of the blue — late-'80s Americans cared whether their leaders were sleeping with gorgeous blondes who weren't their wives. (Vera Farmiga plays Hart's wife Lee. She is awesome, as always.) Probably only for the salacious entertainment of it, but still. For whatever reason, the new reality was that "gossip is front page news," and even respectable, mainstream journalism had become a race to the bottom. As soon as one paper goes there — whatever awful place there is — the others have to follow because news is a for-profit enterprise constantly chasing audiences, even if it shouldn't be.

So this is where the world — or, at least, America — was in the autumn of 1988: The new tabloidization of politics. The new celebrification of politics. The new soap-opera-ization of politics. And The Front Runner becomes, in the best way, a stew of "Why are men so awful?" but also "Why is the press so awful?" and also "Why is the American public so awful?" It's a perfect storm of awfulness. Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever felt so much emotional see-sawing as The Front Runner evoked in me.

The movie grapples with this back and forth. Donna Rice, Hart's supposed girlfriend, barely appears here at all — because none of this is about her — and when she does (played by Sara Paxton) it's purely to suggest that she got a raw deal. There's a female Washington Post reporter who is upfront, at the end of the film, about how she doesn't "think [Hart] respects women" as a contrast to the generally positive portrayal we've seen so far. The Front Runner walks a fine line between acknowledging that attitudes were different in the '80s and acknowledging that those attitudes weren't great, either, even then.

And now this transformation of politics into a game show has come, if not full circle, then perhaps full spiral. We have gone from killing — over consensual sexy-times — a mostly good man's leadership that likely would have been good for the country, to being OK with a terrible man's creepy metaphorical and actual assaults on women, a terrible man who is a terrible leader and who is dragging the nation down, because ... why? Because he's entertaining? I mean, even if we wanted the tabloidization of politics, how did we end up here?

The Front Runner is a kind of heaving sigh, a throwing up of collective arms, at the state we've let ourselves get into. ♦

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    Maryann Johanson

    Maryann Johanson