Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons; directed by Jason Reitman; 113 minutes; R for coarse language, including some sexual references.
“The Front Runner” chronicles 21 tumultuous days in 1987 when the worlds of politics, journalism and entertainment tilted on their respective axes, a seismic shift in priorities and protocol that converged on one man. Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, had narrowly missed running for president in 1984 and was preparing another campaign in the spring of 1987, this time with the wind at his back and the polls in his favor.
This movie intends to raise far more troubling questions than it answers, encouraging the audience to emerge not with a reassuring sense of certainty, but rather with the disquieting notion that even solid moral reasoning can incur a grievous cost. Confoundingly, it sheds no light on Hart. A man who steadfastly insisted on maintaining his privacy, whose impressive intellect was couched in an aloof, withholding persona, remains a cipher, the missing core of a movie that can’t seem to get a bead on its own protagonist.
That makes “The Front Runner” less of an emotional than a mental exercise, albeit an engaging and provocative one.
Director Jason Reitman isn’t as interested in Hart — played in an awkward, subdued performance by Hugh Jackman — as the vortex of activity around him: the cadre of young advisers and volunteers marshaled by campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), the gaggle of reporters Hart leads to Red Rocks to announce his “campaign of ideas,” the serene cabin in Troublesome Gulch where he lives with his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and their kids.
True to its multifaceted form, “The Front Runner” is careful to give everyone, especially women, their say about male politicians being held accountable after decades of good-ol’-boy courtesy and cozying up. But Reitman leaves plenty of room for doubt.
Most profoundly, the filmmakers put Hart’s story squarely in the context of the present, when the norms and traditions that were evolving in 1987 now seem like the quaint artifacts of an era supplanted by a vicious double helix of personal destruction and shamelessness. At one point, Hart bitterly predicted that if media and politics continued apace, the American people eventually would get the leaders we deserve. One can conclude many things from “The Front Runner”: that Hart was his worst enemy, that he was haughty and hubristic and fatally out of touch. But, at least in that particular instance of foresight, it’s impossible to say he was wrong.