The Front Runner

US Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) enters the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1988 with an overwhelming lead. Then it’s discovered he’s having an extramarital affair and his campaign swiftly goes off the rails.

By Dan Jolin | Posted 15 days ago

As Harold Wilson once said, a week is a long time in politics. It took slightly longer than that to transform Senator Gary Hart from the next US President to a scandal-ridden campaign drop-out, but the 180 in his fortunes was still remarkably hard, sharp and fast. And it was a turning point for American politics — certainly the way politicians were scrutinised by the media. There’s an irony in the way that Hart, so seemingly progressive, couldn’t adapt to a world where politicians became publicly accountable for personal indiscretions. As Hart says in the form of Hugh Jackman, “It’s gossip. It’ll blow over.” It didn’t. It blew up, right in his handsome face.

It’s a meaty chunk of material for Jason Reitman to gnaw on, as not only director but co-writer with Jay Carson and Matt Bai, on whose 2014 book, All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, the film is based. So while Jackman is its redwood-sturdy centre, this is an ensemble piece. Reitman’s camera roves around the nerve centre of the Hart campaign, run by J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon, and populated by keen interns dubbed the ‘Atari Democrats’. It also glides around the newspaper offices of The Miami Herald, whose journalists uncover the infidelity, and The Washington Post, where staff debate going down the “tabloid” route taken by the Herald. Which means we spend less time than you might expect in the Hart household, with Jackman, Vera Farmiga in the obligatory suffering-wife role, and Kaitlyn Dever as his daughter, Andrea.

Jackman dishes up one of his finest performances yet.

While admirably trying to balance the personal and the public/political, Reitman does tilt towards the latter, leaving not only Farmiga and Dever side-lined, but Sara Paxton as Hart’s girlfriend Donna Rice, too. “I’m not some stupid bimbo,” she says — and she wasn’t — but we don’t see enough of her for the story to fully back that up.

But there is a loose, rambling, Altmanesque appeal to Reitman’s approach, and it does provide a fascinating dip into a pivotal event with both flair and wit, such as the Team Hart guys who can’t remember what his three (or is it four?) ‘E’s should stand for. One of them, tellingly, is Ethics.

At the heart of this kinetic ensemble is Jackman, dishing up one of his finest performances yet as the charismatic politician whose worst opponent is his own libido. The rightness or wrongness of his actions, and of his treatment by the press, is left for us to decide. By embracing all of Hart’s ambiguities — his charm, his idealism, his passion, his stubbornness, his prickliness, his selfishness and his weakness — Jackman admirably doesn’t make it any easier for us.

A sharp-witted and wide-reaching account of a bright political hope’s fall from grace, with an impressive ensemble cast and a great performance from Jackman.