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The Front Runner (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

The Front Runner


Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Josh Brener, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper, Chris Coy, Kaitlyn Dever, Tommy Dewey, Molly Ephraim, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Toby Huss, Mike Judge, Alex Karpovsky, Jennifer Landon, John Bedfor Lloyd, Mark O’Brien, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak, Steve Zissis, Jon Meacham and Matt Bai.

Screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Jason Reitman.

Directed by Jason Reitman.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures. 113 minutes. Rated R.

Screened at the 2018 Philadelphia Film Festival.

The steady rise and meteoric fall of Colorado Senator Gary Hart – the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic Presidential nominee in 1988 – pretty much was the bellwether which started turning politics into the dirty cesspool that it has become.

Hart was the ideal candidate. He was smart, funny, principled, handsome, empathetic, a complete policy wonk and a natural politician. And, frankly, he had great hair. He was looked upon as a new superstar in the mode of the Kennedys. Early polls had him not only sweeping the Democratic primaries, but odd-on favorite to beat George H.W. Bush, who was running after eight years in the shadows of Ronald Reagan.

Then Hart became the subject of a political tabloid scandal – had he had an affair with a campaign worker named Donna Rice? – and within three weeks he had dropped out of the race. He was replaced by the much less viable candidate Michael Dukakis, who was summarily trounced by Bush.

The story is still leaving ripples and muses of “What if?” Hart, and Rice, have denied the allegations to this day. It is still newsworthy. Just a few weeks before this movie was to open, a story in The Atlantic came out suggesting that Republican dirty trickster Lee Atwater – who atoned for his actions to win at all costs when he learned he was dying of cancer in his 30s back in the early 90s – had admitted that he had set up Hart while working on the Bush campaign.

The “scandal” now feels almost quaint in a world where no one blinks an eye when the President pays hush money to porn stars, but at the time it was a bombshell.

However, Hart was not completely free of blame. He refused to even dignify the charges with a response and felt that his personal life was out of bounds – which may have been true for politicians up until that point – but he never recognized that he was stuck in a whirlpool that was pulling his campaign under.

The Front Runner puts a microscope on this seminal moment in modern politics. And smartly, it looks at the happenings not from Hart’s eyes but from the eyes of the people around him.

Therefore, this wide-ranging look at the scandal has the feel of an old Robert Altman ensemble piece, with literally dozens of smart, funny characters driving the narrative. Jackman captures both Hart’s charisma and his fateful flaw of hubris, but the movie mostly belongs to JK Simmons and Molly Ephraim as the seasoned political operatives watching everything they have worked for in the last few years slipping away from them. Sara Paxton is also good as Donna Rice, who the film smartly does not turn into a bimbo, but instead a smart sensitive woman who is often underestimated for her looks.

The Front Runner is surprisingly funny, and also sadly tragic for civil discourse. We are seeing the birth of the modern political era; FOX “News,” TMZ and Donald Trump.

However, it is not all just a screed. Director Jason Reitman returns to the pointed breeziness of previous films like Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult and Tully, his film from earlier this year. No one is going to listen to this film if it is not fun and funny, and The Front Runner takes its place in a world of satire based upon the trenches of the political world that includes The Candidate, Primary Colors, The American President and The West Wing.

Thirty years later, the Gary Hart situation is an important cautionary tale to tell. Luckily, it also makes for a very entertaining movie. And it is opening wide on Election Day, so go out and vote before you see it.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: October 26, 2018.


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