The Front Runner (2018)

Directed by Jason Reitman

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The Front Runner is a sprawling ensemble of a movie about the first modern political sex scandal, that of 1988 Presidential candidate Gary Hart.  The movie takes a look at an issue that in recent times has become rather black and white.  When Hart was known to be sleeping around, with rumored proof of said sleeping around, we watch a couple different newsrooms debate whether or not they should publish this information.  

The film argues that this was the inflection point at which political journalism veered into the lane of entertainment gossip.  News of Hart’s philandering, he himself would argue, has nothing to do with his capability as a leader, but once the story breaks it’s all anyone wants to talk about.  Others argue that such information is indeed relevant, highly so, as it speaks to the character of a man who was in line to become leader of the most powerful nation on the planet.

Such topics are worthy of debate, and this film as a whole is rather interesting.  It also happens to feature several important characters from the most notable journalism film ever made, All the President’s Men (1976).  The film is well aware of this, pointedly calling attention to Bob Wooward in one scene, as well as rolling out yet another Ben Bradlee (who has already been portrayed with gravity in All the President’s Men by Jason Robards and The Post by Tom Hanks).

And I think the inclusion of these characters, putting aside their existing relevance to the true story, is important, like including Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in The Force Awakens.  It’s a bridge to a different time, and it speaks to the idea of how the same industry which so deftly tackled Watergate now had to find their way through to modern journalism, for better or worse.

If anything the film tries to tackle a bit too much.  In some cases it’s style over substance, but it just so happens that the style (and the true story) is exciting on its own.  The film opens with a long, impressive single take shot that uses Robert Altman-esque overlapping dialogue and establishes what feels like a dozen important characters.  It sets up right away how this isn’t a story about just one man, (and in fact Hart might be one of the more underdeveloped characters in the script) but rather the story of an entire industry and country.

Like with something like Nightcrawler (“if it bleeds, it leads”), this is a story about the news giving people what it wants.  At this point in time, however, it was unclear if that’s what people wanted, to know about the philandering which journalists themselves had been covering up for politicians for years.

When the film begins it may be a little startling to hear the newsroom of the Washington Post acknowledge Hart’s well-known hotel open door policy.  Bradlee, the editor in chief, was known to be good friends with John F. Kennedy and well aware of his own womanizing ways.  

So I suppose it wasn’t a matter of ethics, because they sure would’ve published all of that had it seemed worthy of print, but of reader interest.  Is this something the voting public cares about?

Now it’s not to say that people shouldn’t care about such things, but the story seems to argue that the country had something going in its favor before it cared about these kinds of storylines, if only because now maybe it’s all people care about, at least a certain segment of the population.

The film’s closing speech, Hart’s own announcement that he’d be dropping out of the race, argues that American journalism risked veering into the same realm as Hollywood gossip, and the way the speech is framed it might as well be the film arguing the same point.

So the film isn’t all that optimistic, nor does it have to be.  It takes a bite at the apple in trying to explain modern politics, and with how fast things have moved these past few years it kind of feels like this is a sweet, sincere attempt at understanding something which is far beyond comprehension.  

But the film is engaging, and as a snapshot of the past, present and future it’s quite interesting.  Maybe that’s the true story itself more than the movie, but I found the whole thing quite engaging.  The performances are solid, even for characters that might be a bit underwritten (if only because there are so many people and storylines to cover), and it’s all handled with skill and care.  No one feels exactly shortchanged, and if my only argument is that we don’t see enough of some of these characters, well then I must’ve enjoyed the film.

Up Next: Zombieland: Double Tap (2019), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Black Mass (2015)

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