*. The Front Runner is based on All the Truth Is Out, a non-fiction book by the journalist Matt Bai. I mention this for several reasons.
*. In the first place, as a reporter Bai was as much interested in the news coverage of the downfall of Gary Hart as he was in Hart. So the movie has a double vision, taking us into the war rooms of the Hart campaign and the newsrooms of the Washington Post and Miami Herald. I’m not sure this is a good thing though. Are attention is divided, and who are we supposed to be identifying with?
*. Second: Bai provides a very sympathetic portrait of Hart. Indeed, Hart comes across as little short of heroic, the great lost leader of the Democratic Party. This requires some delicacy in the treatment of Donna Rice. Bai presents Rice sympathetically but he also looks away from the question of just how involved Hart was with her. In fact the book ends with his declining to ask Hart if he’d actually had sex with Rice. Unsurprisingly, or necessarily, the movie doesn’t go there either. Indeed most of the movie erases Rice, and the monkey business on the Monkey Business is elided entirely. When she does get a big scene later in the movie it comes as a surprise, and as far as understanding her goes it’s too little too late.
*. Third: Bai’s book came out in 2014. The date is significant because while Bai criticizes the downward spiral of American politics and American political reporting, and especially its tabloidization, turning candidates into reality-TV performers and eschewing coverage of important issues in order to spend more time on entertainment value (his guide was Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death), he did all this before the arrival of Donald Trump. In 2018 director Jason Reitman had a clearer idea where all this was heading, though the connection, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t made.
*. I wasn’t that impressed by The Front Runner. Which, in turn, made me wonder when I’d last been impressed by a political movie. The Post and Vice, which came out around the same time, were both disappointments, reflecting the different ways things can go wrong: either being too sentimental or too gimmicky. These are political movies without any real political message, despite an abundance of earnestness.
*. What odd casting. Hugh Jackman does a good job, but he doesn’t look like Gary Hart. Vera Formiga doesn’t look like Lee Hart. Sara Paxton doesn’t look remotely like Donna Rice. Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee? And finally Mamoudou Athie’s character is a composite of E. J. Dionne and Paul Taylor, but is so earnest and naive he resembles neither.
*. I had my hopes lifted by the opening crane shot, a complicated long take that juxtaposes its own technical proficiency with the primitive broadcasting equipment the TV crews are using in 1984. But after that it’s all downhill. In making a movie about relatively recent events concerning people who are still alive I guess there’s a limit on creative (and destructive) license, requiring Reitman to keep his distance. But this also puts a barrier between us and what’s interesting.
*. Peter Bradshaw: “The film somehow shows its hero as a tiresome and sanctimonious figure while piously averting its eyes from his misdemeanour, the one thing that makes Hart dramatically interesting – his supposed sexual encounter with the young would-be campaign worker Donna Rice. The movie shows Hart going to the party on board the boat in Miami (unfortunately called Monkey Business) and meeting Rice, but solemnly declines to show her face or what precisely went on. For a while, it seems as if having a mysterious void where Rice should be might constitute the film’s stylised and rather experimental rationale, maybe to suggest the alienated, dehumanised nature of politics.” (In other words, they’re not real people anyway.)
*. One hates to seem prurient in criticizing a movie that attacks the public’s prurience, but I found myself wondering just how Hart related to women. He seems to have been mainly a somewhat introverted intellectual, so maybe he just saw them as release valves. I don’t know. The movie doesn’t give us anything to work with, even with the character of his wife. Meanwhile, after the crash, the big confrontation scene between Gary and Lee plays even duller than what I was expecting. It’s hard to see why they were together in the first place. They certainly don’t seem to find any pleasure in each other’s company, either here or in Bai’s book.
*. Listening to the DVD commentary I was interested to hear Jason Reitman say that the theme of the film is the need, when following politics, to distinguish between what is important and relevant and what is just entertainment, and that this “Altmanesque” approach to the material (lots of overlapping dialogue and long, busy takes) was meant to further this by forcing the audience to sift all this material for themselves. I say that’s an interesting idea but I’m not sure it really follows. Altman’s technique, it seems to me, is about something other than signal and noise (I talk about this a bit in my notes on Nashville). Also, the presentation here isn’t so much about the distraction of the sensational as it is a reflection of the clutter of the everyday, which is something different.
*. Even in his book Bai admits that few people today remember Gary Hart, and if they do it’s just because of a famous photo (that the movie doesn’t try to reproduce). Bai’s book was meant to be a sort of reclamation project and I think it worked. The Front Runner aims at something a little different, or rather a bunch of other things, and I think misses its marks. It’s well made but not as well conceived. I hate to say it, but a good documentary on the subject would probably have made a better movie. At the end of his commentary, Reitman says “it’s not our job to tell the audience what to think, it’s our job to give the audience the opportunity to think.” He wanted to keep his hands off the scale. Is that the right approach to take with a political movie? Shouldn’t there be a point of view?