Before Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted a picture of his bulging groin, and before Bill Clinton “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” there was Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who torpedoed his very credible shot at the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination because he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. Like Weiner and Clinton (but more charismatic than both of them combined), Hart was a passionate statesman motivated by a genuine desire to better the lives of his constituents. And, like Weiner and Clinton, none of that seemed to matter from the moment Hart was caught with his pants around his ankles.
Judging by Jason Reitman’s lucid but lifeless attempt to dramatize the final weeks of his campaign, Hart’s scandal was the beginning of the end for political discourse in this country. The film takes that fact for granted. The twin questions that drive “The Front Runner” from its Altman-esque first shot to its whimper of an ending are more complex and open-ended than that: To what degree was the fallout Hart’s fault, and what role do the media (and the American people) play in the supposed degradation of our national priorities?
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.
We meet virtually all of them in the film’s opening long-take, a clever bit of camerawork that bottles the density and business of “Nashville” and uncorks it all over the 1984 Democratic National Conversation. Floating from the inside of a television news van to Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), to a gaggle of frantic campaign staffers (“Girls” alum Alex Karpovsky and “Silicon Valley” actor Josh Brener among them), and eventually back to the candidate as he concedes the race and sets himself up for ’88, the setup quickly binds the press and the politician together like oil and water swirling down the same drain.
From there, a flurry of overlapping dialogue introduces us to campaign manager Bill Dixon (a blustery J.K. Simmons), an editor at the Washington Post (an underused Alfred Molina), and his most impressive young reporter (emerging talent Mamoudou Athie). Then, of course, there’s Hart’s long-suffering wife (Vera Farmiga) and his teenage daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), the latter of whom is written into the movie just so her sexual orientation can inspire a humanizing scene with her father. It’s rare to see a film with so many people and so few compelling characters, but Reitman’s script — co-written with Matt Bai and Jay Carson — does a solid, clockwork-like job of organizing them all into place. At the very least, this is a story that Bai knows inside and out, as “The Front Runner” is based on his 2014 book: “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.”
And oh, do they go tabloid. But, before they can do that, we get a chance to spend a little bit of time with Hart at the height of his power, and these passages can be electric. Is there any actor in the world who’s better than Jackman at negotiating irrepressible charm with sinister undercurrents of ambition and power? Often looking like more of a lumberjack than a politician (he even throws an axe at a campaign stop), Jackman’s Hart is infected with the same dreamer’s disease that proved incurable for his P.T. Barnum. But those glowing eyes, and their unkept promise for America’s next great adventure, are undercut with a simmering rage at the idea that anyone would dare to ask Hart about his personal life.
The presidential candidate was slow to learn something that other celebrities, like the name-checked Warren Beatty, had already accepted: Private lives were no longer possible for public figures. A lesser actor may leave us feeling like Hart is just getting haughty because he doesn’t want his affairs to come to light. But Jackman’s layered and richly shadowed performance allows for a more compelling (and perversely dignified) interpretation: Hart is upset when reporters ask him such questions because he believes that the marital issues between two people are not the business of the American public. It’s almost secondary to him that such practices would expose his adultery. Despite more than three decades of marriage, Hart believes more in the sanctity of political discourse than he does in the sanctity of his own vows.
So far as Hart’s concerned, what he does with his dick is his business, and his wife is the only of the 300 million people in this country who’s capable of forgiving him. So it’s the press who initially emerge as the bad guys. “Togetherness” breakout Steve Zissis plays a thirsty Miami Herald reporter who’s so desperate for a “good” story that he follows a woman to Washington D.C. and stakes out Hart’s townhouse until the Senator falls into his trap. A scandal is born.
As Hart begins to slip in the polls, “The Front Runner” disengages from the details of Jackman’s performance — and completely divorces itself from whatever’s happening in Hart’s relationship with his wife — as the film instead forfeits itself to a series of remedial debates about what matters to the American people. The film is broadly sympathetic of Hart’s situation; it doesn’t absolve him of being a shitty husband, but it side-eyes the press for whipping the story into a national firestorm. At one point, a member of Hart’s team gets on the phone with a reporter and screams: “Do your editors a favor and remind them that they run The New York fucking Times, and not Us Weekly!” It doesn’t do the fourth estate any favors that the Miami Herald reporters who bust this thing wide open have less in common with Woodward and Bernstein than they do with the Keystone Cops (one of them is played by comedian Bill Burr).
The only counterbalance to that argument comes from the small gaggle of women characters, most of whom are burdened with the casual misogyny of having to be the film’s conscience. Towards the end, when Reitman and co. are leaning pretty hard on the idea that a shitty husband could make a great President, a female journalist sticks a dagger in him that resonates to the present day: “Hart is a man with power and opportunity.” And the idea that he’s abused both of those things in his private life doesn’t bode well for a life in the White House — it’s something, she feels, that Americans ought to know about before they head to the polls. It doesn’t do Hart any favors that he essentially aligns himself with Trump, in that neither one of them wanted the press to be allowed within 100 yards of their private lives. The only difference there is that Hart refused to lie about it, either to his wife or his constituents.
Of course, the question of whether or not Hart’s affairs should be relevant is rendered moot by the fact that they are, or have been made to be. Perhaps even our most storied journalistic institutions have been guilty of giving readers what they want at the expense of focusing them on what they need to know. When this limp but well-intentioned comedy comes to its sad conclusion, there’s no doubt that politics have gone tabloid. The great tragedy of “The Front Runner” is that now — in a discourse ruled by Russian interference, child imprisonment, and the flares of White Nationalism — we’d give anything for them to go tabloid again.
“The Front Runner” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. Columbia Pictures will release it in theaters on November 7.