‘The Front Runner’ a propagandistic cop-out, despite solid performance by Hugh Jackman

‘The Front Runner’ 

Directed by Jason Reitman

Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons

Rated R

With "The Front Runner," opening on Election Day, filmmaker Jason Reitman gambles that audiences inundated by the supercharged version of the 24/7 political news cycle during the Trump era will seek to escape from it with a movie that takes a quaint look back at its earliest years.

It’s hard to know exactly what there is to be gleaned from the story of Gary Hart’s failed campaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, when he went from favored status in April 1987 to dropout in a matter of weeks, due to allegations that were not a fraction as serious as some of what’s been alleged about the current president.

The movie, in which Reitman, journalist Matt Bai and political veteran Jay Carson adapt Bai’s 2014 book "All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid," has its own particular ideas, of course. It frames the Hart scandal as a Big Bang moment that created the culture that has manifested so vividly in the present, in which politics often seems to be little more than another form of entertainment, a spectacle to be consumed around the clock on television.

"The Front Runner" builds its case credibly, with Reitman offering a subdued and observational approach to chronicling the demolition of Hart’s presidential bid amid allegations of an extramarital affair. There is a commitment to realism, to a naturalistic aesthetic that allows scenes to unfold as if you’re witnessing a behind-the-scenes documentary, without forgoing a degree of meticulous visual storytelling that gives the picture a convincingly cold, joyless feel.

Hugh Jackman gives a revelatory performance as the Colorado senator that fits with this overall approach, in which his own showy performative instincts are severely restrained behind a veneer of unceasing seriousness. It is perhaps the first time the great, charismatic actor has forcefully looked inward in one of his performances and can be genuinely said to illustrate untapped potential.

Yet there’s something seriously off about the way the movie frames the media and its involvement in exposing the Hart story. The notion that the Miami Herald reporters who broke the story (here played as preening, invasive slobs by Steve Zissis and Bill Burr) were somehow overstepping, or too aggressive, by prying into the senator’s private life is a dangerous oversimplification at best. 

The depiction of the big, bad media as an invasive force that unfairly robbed a good man of his chance to be president — and, by extension, has made it increasingly hard for worthy people to enter the arena — is a propagandistic cop-out and simply too wrong for this moment to ignore.