Docudrama The Front Runner is about Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman). In 1987 he was the front runner to become President of the United States of America in the next election, until his extramarital affair became exposed in the press. What was first simply rumours and speculation became out-right scandal due to how Hart reacted. The drama itself plays out in a rather compelling manner, both for those who are familiar with the story and those who are new to it. A prevailing sense of inevitability resides, akin to the feeling of watching a car crash happening and being unable to look away.
The film opens with Hart on the cusp of greatness, narrowly missing out, before cutting three years later to a man at his peak. Admired by all, he is the epitome of ‘women want to be with him, men want to be him’ – he’s charming, intelligent, well-spoken and an immensely charismatic speaker. This is the film presented him as a quasi-tragic hero whose succession is brought down by his own hubris. He managed to resist everything but temptation; but is his handling of the fallout deservedly righteous and indignant or simply arrogant? Should politicians be held to a higher standard? Is committing adultery an immoral act? Is it really the job of the press to report on it, is it news or gossip?
What the film implores the viewer to do is contemplate these fact, to enforce rumination on the nature of politics and it’s relationship with the press. Jackman portrays Hart as a man who, to quote Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, ‘coulda been a contender’ and ‘coulda been somebody’. It’s a fine piece of acting, at times certain and bold then, in the next instant, aloof & hesitant. He’s well spotted by a host of familiar faces J.K Simmons, Vera Farmiga, Tommy Dewey and Alfred Molina to name but four. Each is given some semblance of character motivation and a small, but fair, share of screen time. They help elevate this film slightly above other similar Oscar bait drama, along with a few auteur touches. There’s some lingering close-ups, restricted framing and elison to develop the intrigue and tension.
It’s rather poetically ironic that the film falls down due to its fatal flaw, the dialogue. The film’s key themes are far from subtle, obvious would be an understatement for it replaces text with subtext. Instead of allowing the audience to infer and reflect upon these big questions, it tells them what to think. There’s big speeches (delivered in a big speeches manner) that state these questions explicitly in a manner that becomes increasingly tedious to observe. Questions are posed with answers delivered straight after, ambiguity abandoned in favour of explicit meaning; making for a watching experience that is neither assured nor insightful. The fact this is reinforced with a huge amount of knowing dramatic irony further impedes on the film’s impact.
How Hart is presented here is essentially like the film overall, looks great and has the best intentions but falls down due to its own conceit.
The Front Runner is in UK cinemas from 11th January.