In Jason Reitman’s (Tully, Juno, Up in the Air) latest film, Hugh Jackman plays US Senator Gary Hart, whose bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination seemed to be a shoo-in: that is, until his spectacular, precipitous fall from grace, caused by his own indiscretions compounded by the reaction of the American media.
A film about a political sex scandal may not be a new story but Reitman’s fast paced drama — focused on three extraordinary weeks — is based on journalist Matt Bai’s book, All the Truth Is Out with a script co-written by Bai, Reitman and political consultant, Jay Carson. As a result, the portrayal of events — and the added archive footage of the time — lends a certain authenticity to its retelling.
At 46, Gary Hart was relatively young to run as a candidate. His intelligence, charisma and idealism made him popular with young voters. He was inspiring, charming and handsome but was uncomfortable in revealing anything personal about himself, feeling it unnecessary for his candidacy. But once the long held rumours about his infidelity were confirmed, this stubborn refusal to talk about his private life — “I don’t want to be the issue”— only served to feed the news frenzy that followed, eventually forcing Hart to address the issue of his affair in public.
Jackman is striking as Hart, managing to project his strong political presence combined with a subtle sense of dignity or obvious discomfort as the incident unfolds. But Hart is also arrogant and displays a remarkable lack of concern for Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the woman at the centre of the affair. Nor does he seem bothered about how his behaviour affects his wife, Lee, played by a dignified Vera Farmiga.
Some of the most engaging scenes take place in intense, chaotic campaign meetings — led by J K Simmons who gives a credible performance as Bill Dixon, Hart’s tireless campaign manager — as well as newsrooms, where discussions address whether reporting on Hart’s affair is legitimate news or not. When the story eventually breaks, via a reporter’s haphazard and unorthodox methods, Hart and his family are besieged.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there are no heroes or villains: Reitman does not apportion blame on any one individual or group. Unfortunately, however, inadequate attention is given to Rice and apart from the palpable flicker of disappointment shown on the face of one of his employees (Molly Ephraim), as she witnesses Hart’s disgrace during his final press conference, there is little examination of how his actions affected his staff team, in particular his hopeful younger members, for whom he represented the future.
It is sobering that a film about a dimly recalled political event feels so much like a different era. That an extra-marital affair should be so decisively derailing of a political career and the presentation of the media’s significant reaction to it, elevate the film from a run of the mill biopic to something more substantial.
The Front Runner is released in UK cinemas on January 11