The Front Runner (2018) ☆☆(2/4): As his campaign crashes down

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Jason Reitman’s latest film “The Front Runner” tries to cover too many things about the rise and fall of Gary Hart, who attempted to be a Democratic presidential candidate in 1988 but then fell from grace due to that infamous scandal surrounding his extramarital affair. While busily hopping around several different plotlines for providing us a big social/political picture surrounding Hart’s scandal, the movie frequently suffers from its scattershot narrative and thin characterization, and it only comes to lose more of its focus and momentum while never delving deep into its subjects.

After the opening sequence showing the outcome of the 1984 Democratic Party presidential primaries, the movie instantly moves forward to 1988, when Hart (Hugh Jackman) tries again for becoming the Democratic candidate for the upcoming US Presidential Election. Besides being a guy who may become the youngest US President since John F. Kennedy, Hart draws lots of attention from public and media for his progressive political stance, and everyone working in his campaign is quite confident and excited from the start as he receives far more support than other notable Democratic candidates including Michael Dukakis.

However, not long after Hart officially announces that he will compete for the 1988 Democratic Party presidential primaries, a reporter of the Miami Herald receives an anonymous call, which informs the reporter that Hart is having an affair with some woman he met at a boat party held outside Miami, Florida. The reporter does not believe that much at first, but then what that anonymous caller told to the reporter turns out to be pretty credible, and the Miami Herald soon embarks on digging into what is being hidden behind Hart’s back.

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It does not take much time for Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J. K. Simmons) to come to learn of what will strike the campaign sooner or later, and he naturally becomes quite concerned while also trying to handle the situation as much as he can, but Hart is quite adamant about sticking to his principles. As a deeply private guy, he does not want to get his private life exposed in public at all, and he stubbornly maintains his position even when his scandal is finally reported by the Miami Herald.

As Hart and his people try to survive this scandal, their situation only gets worse as the media pays more attention to Hart’s private life. When an envelope containing the information on Hart’s another affair is delivered to the Washington Post later in the story, it is promptly decided that this should be reported as soon as possible because, well, other newspapers will report on it anyway, and that decision certainly throws another blow to Hart’s campaign.

Meanwhile, the movie shows some sympathy toward two women who have to endure a lot due to Hart’s indiscretion. Hart’s wife, Oletha “Lee” Hart (Vera Farmiga), is not so shocked as she has been quite accustomed to her husband’s personal flaws for years, but she still cannot help but get frustrated and exasperated as constantly hounded by TV and newspaper reporters. In case of Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the woman who is at the center of the scandal along with Hart, she is overwhelmed by her circumstance as the media already believes that she is Hart’s mistress regardless of whatever happened between her and Hart on that day, and there is a little poignant scene where she confides her confusion and frustration to one of Hart’s campaign employees.

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As juggling these many different elements together, the adapted screenplay by Reitman and his co-adaptors Matt Bai and Jay Carson, which is based on Bai’s nonfiction book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”, tries to make some critical points on American media and politics, but it is often marred by its weak storytelling, and that problematic aspect is particularly exemplified by its rather vague and superficial depiction of Hart. Although Jackman is well-cast and brings some charisma to his character as required, the movie does not provide any particular insight on what makes Hart tick, and Hart consequently remains a bland and distant figure even at the end of the story, which is disappointingly anti-climactic to say the least.

Around Jackman, Reitman assembles various performers, most of who are unfortunately under-utilized on the whole. While J.K. Simmons, who has frequently collaborated with Reitman since he appeared in “Thank You for Smoking” (2005), has a few nice scenes which remind us again of why he has been one of the most dependable character actors working in Hollywood, Vera Farmiga and Sara Paxton did a lot more than what is demanded by their respective thankless roles, and other notable performers in the film including Alfred Molina, Alex Karpovsky, and Kevin Pollak are seriously wasted because of their underdeveloped supporting characters.

On the whole, “The Front Runner” is not a total waste of time, but it does not fully develop the considerable potentials inside its story and characters, and I was left with empty impressions while only being reminded of how much things have gotten worse since Hart’s humiliating fall from grace, which surely makes an ironic contrast to Donald Trump’s disgraceful rise to the White House. Compared to Reitman’s other notable works such as “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air” (2009), this movie considerably lacks focus and edgy, so I recommend you to watch them instead of this middling misfire.

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