Senator Gary Hart’s second presidential campaign began on April 13, 1987, with an idealistic oration amid the natural grandeur of Red Rocks, Colo. It ended a little more than three weeks later in a Denver hotel ballroom with a bitter excoriation of the press and the political process.
Between those two speeches, rumors about Hart’s extramarital escapades — in particular his association with a former model named Donna Rice — overshadowed his efforts to articulate a new agenda for the Democratic Party. The swift collapse of Hart’s candidacy (not including his short-lived, inconsequential attempt to revive it a few months later) is the subject of “The Front Runner,” Jason Reitman’s busy, bossy new film.
A number of recent movies have taken a heroic view of the press, in particular the old-fashioned, printed-on-paper kind. “Spotlight” and “The Post,” for instance, depict journalists as tribunes of civic righteousness. “The Front Runner,” based on a book by Matt Bai, a former writer for The New York Times Magazine, takes a dimmer view of the fourth estate. It belongs to the accusatory tradition of “Ace in the Hole,” “Network” and “Absence of Malice,” movies that see reporters and editors not as guardians of democracy but as barbarians inside the gates of the republic, subverting its values through cynicism, self-importance and mercenary scandal-mongering.
Hart himself, played with sober, dignified charisma and a saving flash of wit by Hugh Jackman, is presented onscreen much as he presented himself at the time: as a serious, cerebral politician uncomfortable with the kind of personal display a modern national campaign seems to demand.
Handsome and thoughtful, the senator is a rugged intellectual, conversant in the minutiae of policy and the grand themes of literature. He lends a reporter his dog-eared copy of “War and Peace.” He scores a clean bull’s-eye at a county fair ax-throwing competition. He has his flaws, though. The question “The Front Runner” poses is whether those flaws, which have less to do with lust than with stubbornness and pride, should have cost the nation the chance of a Hart presidency. Following the argument of Bai’s book, Reitman, who wrote the screenplay with Bai and Jay Carson, depicts his hero as a man struggling to protect his privacy and that of his family against the predatory prurience of the news media.
After a prologue set in 1984, when Hart made an unexpectedly strong primary run against Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee (defeated by Ronald Reagan in a general-election landslide), the movie starts out as a brisk procedural full of nifty period details and lively, nose-to-the-grindstone performances. Political operatives and reporters smoke cigarettes, whisper into pay phones and drink scotch in bars outfitted with dark wood fixtures and deep-red banquettes. J.K. Simmons, a Reitman staple and a peerless character actor, pockets a handful of scenes as Bill Dixon, Hart’s campaign manager.
Reitman uses Altmanesque sound design and serpentine camera movements to convey the chaos and kineticism of a process in constant, frantic motion. But after a while, once we’ve met the principal players, the speechmaking starts and a potential comedy of political manners turns into a pious, tendentious morality play.
The villain is Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), a Miami Herald reporter who is in every way Hart’s opposite: slovenly, craven, opportunistic, inarticulate. Fiedler follows up on the rumors about Rice (Sara Paxton) — who met Hart at a party on board a yacht called Monkey Business — and follows Rice herself from Florida to Washington, where Fiedler and his colleagues stake out the senator’s house. Fiedler’s cravenness is also contrasted to the ethical anguish of A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), a Washington Post reporter who pursues the adultery story with reluctance and distaste. (Fiedler is a real person. Parker is a fictional composite, partly based on E.J. Dionne.)
Hart’s frustration bubbles over at times — when he snaps at Parker that reporters should “follow me around”; when he confronts Herald reporters outside his Georgetown brownstone in the middle of the night; when he lashes out at the editor of The Herald during a policy forum in New York — but the real suffering is borne by his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). She is the surest magnet for the audience’s sympathy, a woman compelled by her husband’s carelessness (at least) and the press’s insensitivity (at best) to play a role for which she has no appetite.
Lee is also the film’s alibi. Her innocence authorizes its slippery and simplistic handling of complicated themes. A scene in which Ann Devroy, a co-worker of Parker’s (played by Ari Graynor) defends the idea of holding powerful men accountable for their private behavior functions like a “to be sure” paragraph in an op-ed column. Apart from Lee, the women in the movie are either naïve, like Rice, or treacherous, like Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim), the (fictional) Hart staffer who sells out Rice. In this movie to be a politician’s wife is to be granted a share of tragic nobility. For a woman, to be anything else, above all a professional, is to live in a state of moral compromise.
At various points men, including Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) are heard to reminisce about the old days when journalists ignored the sex lives of politicians. This cozy, old-boy arrangement is not explicitly endorsed, but the logic of “The Front Runner” identifies it with the finest traditions of American democracy itself. Those traditions were undermined when Fiedler and his buddies “hid in the bushes” (in Hart’s words) to catch the senator in a compromising position, distracting the public from graver matters.
That moment, according to the original subtitle of Bai’s book, was when “politics went tabloid.” But it is hard to square that notion with either the previous history of American campaigning — see the examples of Grover Cleveland and Nelson Rockefeller, among others — or subsequent events. The death of privacy in the digital age (a theme of Reitman’s similarly misbegotten “Men, Women & Children”) has little to do with newspapers, and politicians have long since learned to survive worse scandals than Hart’s.
“The Front Runner” regards the spectacle of American democracy, which has often been messy, unfair and ridiculous, with high-minded disdain. The film excites our curiosity about Hart’s behavior and then declares it to be none of our business. It scolds rather than illuminates, and prefers the defense of power to the pursuit of truth. That may be its sole claim to relevance.
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