The Front Runner: Stand For Something, by Scott Nye
There’s a shot near the end of Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner that indicates the film might finally crystalize around some sort of perspective on the whole situation it has presented. Spoilers for history – Democratic candidate Gary Hart did not become President of the United States. This shot depicts the nail in his coffin, the point at which the forces within and against him became too great to overcome and he will be forced out of the race. Centered on the back of Hart’s head (as portrayed by Hugh Jackman), the camera circles around a very busy room, with various factions giving their take as to whether Hart has any future in the race. In the deep background, we see the final damning piece of evidence introduced to one of Hart’s staffers. The camera has assumed Hart’s point-of-view, but it is not especially curious about this information. It seems, instead, to have expected it, and is surveying the room to see just when and how everybody else will take notice.
What makes this shot so interesting is that the film to that point had never really taken Hart’s point-of-view. In fact, it seemed to be resisting any central protagonist figure. Hart instead remained at a distance; we’d see him through the eyes of journalists, through his campaign staff, through his family, or through the public at large. Everybody loves him. His left-leaning ideas are geared towards improving the lives of American workers, and he presents them in relatable terms. He’s charming but sincere, smart but not elitist, and is more eager to make the campaign about his ideas than about himself. It could be that he just has a lot to hide, though. And even if the rumors abound, all it takes it just the right tip to get people to really start digging.
This multi-thread approach that regards its central figure as a subject rather than its perspective makes for an interesting view, and at times, Reitman (who cowrote the screenplay with Matt Bai and Jay Carson, based on Bai’s book) seems to be reaching toward the idea that no matter how appealing the political candidate, you never really know them. You might trust them, but you don’t know them. It’s a tricky line to toe, one that Hugh Jackman plays quite well (most celebrities are, to some degree, experienced in this dynamic). His conception of Hart keeps him at a remove, seeming to be reading unseen speeches even when he’s off-the-cuff. Once the unsavory details of his personal life get out, Jackman really shines, seeming to hit some fundamental malfunction where he keeps reaching for the old posture that no longer suffices.
This unmoored quality ultimately sinks the film. It never really finds the groove as a large, sprawling ensemble film, which essentially it is – we’ll follow the journalists for awhile, or Hart’s campaign, or his family, but none of these groups have a great fixed point either. Reitman seems to be going for something Altmanesque, which is reflected in the dialogue as well, often overlapping and without a fixed topic, suggesting the feeling of improvisation even when it’s not. Robert Altman was an artist; Reitman, whatever his talents, is not, and it’s especially clear here. Perhaps he’s held back by the Bai and Carson, who come from journalism and politics respectively. Too much of the film feels like it’s trying to satisfy reportage and campaign strategy, rather than recalling that it’s about a group of people in a very tricky and, to that point in history, unprecedented challenge set before them. The cast – which includes Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, Kaitlyn Dever, Kevin Pollak, Alex Karpovsky, Ari Graynor, and Molly Ephraim – is quite capable at filling out the characters with ticks, speech patterns, and other mannerisms, but the film too rarely gives them space outside of the narrative requirements of the scene.
Gary Hart’s fall from grace is a key slice of American history, when a candidate’s personal life became as important to the electoral process as their positions and presentational abilities. You can see in this story the seeds of the Clinton scandal, of the Access Hollywood tape; you can also see a moment at which left-leaning politics could have flourished when it was needed most, but was undone by a changing landscape. These ideas are more teased out by the film than explored, which is too enamored of its journalistic purpose to take flight as drama or cinema. The few moments when it does crystalize – as in the shot I mention at the start – only underline how misbegotten its aims are throughout the rest. Like Hart himself, The Front Runner had a lot of potential that it mostly squanders. Unlike Hart, it can’t stake a strong position on anything.