1988. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), together with his veteran campaign manager (JK Simmons) and his wife (Vera Farmiga), embarks on a campaign to secure the nomination for Democrat candidate in the US Presidential Election. However, in the space of three weeks, his campaign is derailed by allegations of womanising following an investigation by two journalists (Bill Burr, Tom Fielder) from the Miami Herald.
Political dramas normally either fall somewhere between tense thrillers or satirical comedies. It's rare, then, to have a straight-up drama like 'The Front Runner' which puts the characters involved at its core and examines them to within an inch of their lives. Movies like last year's 'The Post' live off the excitement and the chase, but here, it's decidedly devoid of any of this and instead lingers over the private moments between people - and that's really what 'The Front Runner' is about; the choice between privacy and publicity.
There's something truly frustrating about Gary Hart and Hugh Jackman's performance, as we see a politician who is not only intelligent and well-meaning, but is so naive as to be foolish. There's a small scene where JK Simmons' haggard campaign manager tells a story about Hart discussing the intrusion of the media with Warren Beatty, with Hart not getting that the cameras follow him everywhere. It's a sad moment, but it makes you wonder how Hart ever thought he was going to manage with any of it.
Jackman's performance as Hart is as rich and as human as anything he's done, and you really can see the walls closing in on him as the story progresses. His charisma is self-evident, but it's in the smaller moments we see an impotent rage that bubbles just under the surface. Surprisingly, the movie makes no implicit judgement on the man, as that's left to the journalists covering him. Some agree that the intrusion is too much, that Hart's life is his own and the manner in which the story is drawn out is beneath them. Others, meanwhile, say that he's a politician, should know better and that he had both power and opportunity.
If there's a complaint against 'The Front Runner', it's that it never brings these questions down for a landing. Instead, what we're left with is an open-ended question about the role of the media and the nature of politics versus personal lives. Smartly, the screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman doesn't need to play up any connection to current events because, well, what's the point? When we see where American politics has ended up from thirty years ago to now, Gary Hart's alleged philandering comes across as almost mild by comparison. That it speaks so readily to the current climate is probably why it was made, but whether it will leave a lasting impact is unlikely because the lack of tension robs it of memorability. In a lot of ways, it's like watching a car crash in slow motion. You know exactly where it's going to end up, it's going to be awful, and the aftermath is going to be worse.
More thought-provoking than probing, 'The Front Runner' is a well-made political drama that doesn't offer up easy answers, but delivers sharp and tactful performances by all concerned.