“The Front Runner,” directed by Jason Reitman and starring Hugh Jackman, paints a critical picture of the media’s involvement in U.S. politics during the controversial 1988 presidential campaign — but the movie goes too far in demonizing the press.
At the start of the movie, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Gary Hart (Jackman) says that “the world changes when young people give a damn,” reflecting a raw and familiar modern-day sentiment in the wake of our recent elections. This starts us off with a likeable image of Hart, prepping him to be our hero despite his actions later in the film. Throughout much of the movie, we see Hart as a down-to-earth guy from the West with strong ideas about what needs to change in the country — for a time, that is. After a group of reporters staked out Hart’s townhouse, an adultery scandal surfaces against him, forcing him to drop out of the election. The blame for this seems to be placed on the reporters rather than Hart.
While many of the film’s references seemed as if they would resonate with an older generation who actually lived to see this story play out in the ‘80s, it was still fast-paced and engaging for a political docudrama. Any potentially threatening jargon was either coupled with witty banter among Hart’s campaign team or it was so minute that it didn’t confuse the audience or pull away from the story itself. The cinematography was lovely, and the writing, especially at the beginning of the movie, was surprisingly witty with a sarcastic undertone.
What was somewhat disconcerting was the film’s portrayal of Hart as a passive victim of journalism that went too far. Paparazzi-like crowds of reporters yelled and stuck microphones in characters’ faces — specifically Hart’s — and intense camera flashes made me wonder why there wasn’t a warning at the beginning of the film for individuals with epilepsy. When Hart is asked questions by journalists throughout the film, he answers with his ideas and policy, but shuts down when asked anything about his personal life.
The issues that this film addresses are interesting ones: what information is relevant when we choose to cast our vote? Throughout this film, however, this question remains unanswered. Hart and his campaign are, for nearly all of the movie, victimized and portrayed as tragic, going so far as to suggest that this event was perhaps the downfall of ethical journalism in politics. However, the film fails to fully examine the implications of Hart’s conflicting answers to the journalists and his flat refusal to share anything other than his policy stances. The movie also probes whether media goes too far to obtain these answers and seems to answer that, yes, the media did overstep its boundaries and still does. However, a more pressing and interesting question goes unanswered: what information is considered “private” in politics?
This theme is not entirely ignored, however. Donna (Sara Paxton), with whom Hart was allegedly having an affair, told reporters that she wanted a job working for his campaign and she was at his home for an interview. Whether this piece of information was factual or not soon becomes tainted by what felt like a cheap joke. A journalist briefly expresses her distrust of him as a man in power, but the dots are not connected and the possible abuse of this power is not further discussed.
While the film is engaging and elicits a number of thought-provoking themes, it seems to assert that this tabloid-like coverage is the source of our political problems, without discussing whether the questions addressed by journalism are important to consider. In terms of more recent politics and the #MeToo movement, there is a feeling of a missed, or perhaps, avoided opportunity for a more timely debate on questions of character and misuses of power in political debate. While it is entertaining for the most part, the script has some wit, and Jackman plays a convincing Hart, if you’re looking for a docudrama that’ll make you think something other than “wow, some journalists suck” — this film might not be for you.