You know what I think director Jason Reitman wants to make with THE FRONT RUNNER? A 2010s-era Spielberg drama in the spirit of LINCOLN or THE POST. A film primarily consisting of men discussing things? I know I’ve seen that before! Reitman is a talented director and he’s not credited enough these days. Notice the camerawork in this film, a political drama that needs to feel as charged as the climate our candidate, Gary Hart (played excellently by Hugh Jackman minus the odd Aussie pronunciation slip), finds himself in. The cuts are not quick, the cinematography is not flashy, and yet Reitman’s lens is often on the move; swooping across tables, following bodies, starting or ending on interesting framings. Control. THE FRONT RUNNER is a beautifully controlled film. Reitman should be proud of his work here.
I am of two minds on the screenplay. There’s an appreciated effort to humanize every player we come into contact with no matter how much screen time they’re given. Remind you of any recent Spielberg flicks? The number of characters the film skirts over is significant and oftentimes you’ll perk up out of recognition: Hey, it’s Bill Burr! Hey, it’s Alfred Molina! Kevin Pollak! Mike Judge?! A superstar cast of minimalist characters. Scene after scene of people talking; the root of the film’s action is dialogue. Yes, those recent Spielberg outings kept popping in my head for good reasons. Not that a political drama can’t have a wowza cast without relying on the groundwork laid by masters. One of my favourite thrillers this past decade was THE IDES OF MARCH, which doesn’t conjure comparisons to Spielbergian dramas whatsoever, and on its own is fully fantastic. But THE FRONT RUNNER feels like it’s trading on the recent niche Spielberg pioneered. And that’s okay. The problem is what my other mind thinks of the script.
I don’t know what to think because the story doesn’t know what to think. This may just be an honest attempt to capture an interesting moment of American political history, but egads, man, creative stories need to say something regardless of intent. It’s not like THE FRONT RUNNER is empty-headed. On the contrary, the film poses several questions: Does a candidate’s personal life affect their ability to govern? Did the journalists that chased Gary Hart’s infidelity do the right thing? How do we even apply morality in conjunction with the facts? The film implies that Gary Hart’s story was the catalyst for our modern perception of the news: sensationalism, stories that sell over stories that matter. But the screenplay doesn’t do any more than imply, and softly at that. Many questions, no answers; THE FRONT RUNNER dusts its hands, throws them up, then politely exits the room.
I hate to keep talking about Spielberg here but have you folks watched LINCOLN? It’s great. I bring it up again because the direct comparison illustrates THE FRONT RUNNER’s core flaw. Jackman’s Gary Hart is a talented politician under a microscope and not only does he not want to play the game of gutter politics, he doesn’t even understand it. But there is no mystery to Hart’s guilt. We, the audience, can easily infer the facts based on how they’re presented in the film. But also, this is a true story and we know what happens anyway. Ditto in LINCOLN. Except in LINCOLN, Spielberg manages to craft tension from history. In the film, Lincoln is racing against time; he’s got to convince a stubborn Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment and he’s got to do so before the Civil War reaches its close conclusion. Even though we know Lincoln succeeds and slavery is abolished in the United States, it’s easy to become wrapped up in the pressures Lincoln feels from all sides of the debate. Heck, the same can be said of THE POST. Will Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) cave to the threats made by the White House or will she allow her newspaper to publish damning stories about the American government’s involvement in Vietnam? The tension exists despite our knowledge of the outcome because that’s the story’s focus: the tension, the question of what will happen.
In THE FRONT RUNNER, we know Gary Hart does not become the President of the United States. We know his campaign is torn asunder weeks in and he is more or less forgotten in the annals of American political history. But the film forgets to apply enough pressure on Hart. The closest we come is an argument between him and his campaign manager played by JK Simmons. The rest of the film is left to meander, and so without proper pressure, the film sags for much of its second half. The story’s focus isn’t what will happen but more of a shrugged mumble— “Hey, check it out, this is what happened.” It’s nice to know but my seat wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable if you’d enticed me to the edge of it.