‘The Front Runner” traces a turning point in American political journalism back to the 1988 presidential campaign, when the auspicious candidacy of Gary Hart, the Democratic front runner, was destroyed by an unprecedented feeding frenzy over rumors of sexual impropriety. The film, based on a widely admired 2014 book by Matt Bai, is framed as a cautionary tale—here’s the source of our current distress, the trivialization of politics by tabloid sensationalism. That’s true, in a limited sense, and Mr. Hart’s downfall may have had vast, if imponderable, consequences; what path might the nation have taken if he, rather than George H.W. Bush, had become president? Yet the production’s shrill insistence on scandal-mongering as the poison of our political process is trivializing, too. Given the profound currents and countercurrents that have transformed—and menaced—the news media in the last few years, this story plays like quaintly ancient history.
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The flawed hero—Hart’s talent for self-destruction figures prominently in the drama—is played by Hugh Jackman. He manages to make the former Colorado senator both intriguing and emotionally remote, though the remoteness makes one wonder how well Hart, as portrayed here, would have fared in the Oval Office if fate, and the press corps, had been kinder. The director, Jason Reitman, working from a script he wrote with Mr. Bai and Jay Carson, whips up narrative action quickly and well. The best parts of the movie are the early, heady days of the campaign when the policy-wonk candidate articulates his ideas to a fast-talking, cross-chattering staff of idealistic young aides overseen by veterans with the expertise—and useful skepticism—to advance his cause. (J.K. Simmons is a charmingly acerbic operative named Bill Dixon. Hart’s wife, Lee, played by Vera Farmiga, conveys a world-weariness all her own.)
There’s also fun to be had in the circumstances, oft-recounted then and little-remembered now, that introduced Hart to Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the model with whom he had an apparently romantic dalliance. Fun because the film works both sides of the street, as canny entertainments do, by relishing what it deplores, and because those circumstances were improbably provocative: Gary, having met Donna on a boat called Monkey Business, was wearing a T-shirt that said “Monkey Business Crew” when he was photographed with her dockside. (The script doesn’t deal with a relatively new theory that their seemingly random encounter was a setup arranged by Hart’s political enemies.)
Where the movie goes clangingly wrong is in its account of the ravenous mob of reporters who tracked Hart down, staked him out and invaded every corner of his life as the first whiffs of impropriety turned into the sweet smell of circulation success. It’s not that the mob wasn’t ravenous—by all accounts it was—or sanctimonious and hypocritical; reporters in another time turned a blind eye to the sexual extravagances of JFK and LBJ. And it’s surely not that a candidate’s moral failings weren’t fair game or don’t remain so—only that the depiction of the journalists and their heedlessly competitive editors (Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee?) rings didactic and consistently false.
The filmmakers go out of their way to humanize Rice, and they do so affectingly, but the ink-stained wretches and electronic ferrets of the Fourth Estate are caricatures in a strident sermon. (That goes equally for the most interesting of the bunch, a Washington Post reporter, and composite character, named A.J. Parker. Although he’s played with extraordinary grace and clarity by Mamoudou Athie, A.J. has still been constructed to illustrate, in parallel with Hart, the corruption of a good man.)
What’s missing from the sermon is a larger context. The press has always had a penchant for sensationalism; now that’s raging at the intersection of politics and entertainment, where fans of scandalous news can’t get enough of the addictive stuff. But “The Front Runner,” like the book it was drawn from, has been overtaken by ominous events. Many sources of information on both sides of the political divide are inflaming their consumers by diluting news with ever larger infusions of opinion or outright propaganda, while the incorruptible and indispensable best of American journalism is besieged as never before in a war on the factual foundations of truth. A movie that doesn’t distinguish between bad press and good press may be enjoyable, but it isn’t helpful.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at email@example.com
Appeared in the November 9, 2018, print edition as ‘All the News That’s Unfit.’