The weight of a political scandal has changed a lot since 1989 when rumors surfaced of an extramarital affair between presidential candidate Gary Hart and Donna Rice. Recently, accusations or rumors do little to tarnish the reputation of a politician and nowadays journalists don’t think twice on reporting them.
In a similar sense, the way political and journalistic dramas have been made in the years since have started to lose their power, each based in the same similar format that made “All the President’s Men” a cinematic staple. So it makes sense that director and writer Jason Reitman wanted to try something completely different in “The Front Runner,” by focusing on a slow burn narrative and thorough look at the way the scandal affected everyone around Hart. Unfortunately, while the film successfully spotlights its far reaching effects, it loses sight of the core focus which makes this groundbreaking scandal seem like just another that could pop up today.
The crux of the film’s problem is the difficulty in feeling the scope of the fall of Hart without any sense of his rise to becoming the titular front runner. Hugh Jackman thrives in the role of Hart when he occasionally pokes through the overwhelming narratives revolving around the staffs of his campaign team, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald. However, for a movie that appears to try to paint Hart as a guy who made a mistake, there seems to be little effort to spotlight the man. There isn’t much of a sense for his political beliefs, his supporters, his dissenters or anything else that might elevate him out of the vacuum in which his campaign seems to run and, quite frankly, that makes it hard to care much about what happens to him.
It’s not that we need to get up close and personal with Hart. In fact, the whole notion of the film is based around the idea of whether or not we have a right to go behind a closed door no matter whose door it happens to be. In this case though, we need some sense of an initial external reputation to recognize the way it is tarnished.
The film does speak to the current political climate on what the role of the media is to report on political affairs and whether a candidate’s personal life should bear a weight on how voters should respond to him or her. As one campaign staffer argues, Hart “is a man with power and opportunity and that gives him responsibility.” However, as Hart himself states, “I think we should be focused on educating not entertaining the next generation.” Is that all scandals are, entertainment? Or do they speak to something deeper about a person’s ability to hold office and the kind of willpower they possess? Instead of holding a mirror up to us as a current society, however, these ideas are merely posited before skipping off onto the next moral inquisition.
What the film does do exceedingly well is share the ways the women involved in the scandal are hurt far worse than Hart. There is his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), who the press claims to side behind but, as she put its, her rage does not belong to them. And then there is Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). The film highlights the fact that she is forced to deal with the aftermath all alone, no one thinking she is more than a dumb blonde who fell for a married man. Her name becomes synonymous with the scandal and, despite the fact Hart is the one immediately vilified for his actions, Rice will go on to be pitied and scorned for the rest of her life.
With such profound moments like these, it’s a shame that the film misses out on some other opportunities to explore the mindset of a scandal. It’s preoccupation with serving up a timely and fresh take on a political drama stunts the basic narrative that is necessary to digest the additional nuances packed into every moment. Sure, every scandal might not have a core truth to hold onto, but at a time where we have become accustomed to nearly daily scandals, we are also accustomed to the wide array of responses. “The Front Runner” may have served Hart’s era well but, ironically, we need something with far more substance to grab onto in this media landscape that is measured by 140 or fewer characters.