The Front Runner review – evasive account of Gary Hart’s downfall | The Front Runner

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Is there any point now in remembering Gary Hart? He was the Democrats’ plausible and photogenic US presidential candidate in 1988, the front runner who abandoned his campaign after press allegations of an extramarital affair. Was he, like the charismatic Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, a lost prince of progressive American politics – a man who might have saved his country from the complacent Bush dynasty? Or was he just another withdrawn brand in what Gore Vidal called the eternally dull Pepsi/Coke choice of American democracy?

It’s not easy to tell from Jason Reitman’s clotted and evasive movie, starring Hugh Jackman in a hairpiece as Hart. The film somehow shows its hero as a tiresome and sanctimonious figure while piously averting its eyes from his misdemeanour, the one thing that makes Hart dramatically interesting – his supposed sexual encounter with the young would-be campaign worker Donna Rice. The movie shows Hart going to the party on board the boat in Miami (unfortunately and notoriously called Monkey Business) and meeting Rice, but solemnly declines to show her face or what precisely went on. For a while, it seems as if having a mysterious void where Rice should be might constitute the film’s stylised and rather experimental rationale, maybe to suggest the alienated, dehumanised nature of politics.

But no. After a solid hour, Rice is finally produced on camera (a perfectly capable and forthright performance from Sara Paxton), tearfully telling her story to Hart’s careworn spin doctors as the media storm breaks. It feels pointless and supercilious to have withheld her presence until this moment, as if the movie itself has been uneasily forced to acknowledge this woman’s existence, just as Hart’s tense campaign team was. She gets a perfunctory scene designed to show that she has feelings and a college degree, too, and a budding sisterly relationship with a concerned young (fictional) woman on Hart’s staff. Then she departs the stage. Crucially, the film is uncertain whether to feel angry at the media’s new tabloid tactics, or to welcome a brusque new honesty, after the press had so long winked at the adulterous antics of JFK and the like.

Jackman – rightly or wrongly ­– portrays Hart as an unrelaxed, unsmiling figure, without the charm or buoyancy of his other recent performances. Vera Farmiga has the thankless and underwritten role of his loyal wife, Lee, and JK Simmons plays the gruff campaign manager Bill Dixon. Together, they all inhabit a world chock-full of mannerisms borrowed from Robert Altman’s Nashville and Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men, particularly in the very showy but very pointless sequence in the crowded convention centre in 1984 when Hart abandons his first run at power. The camera roams this way and that in the media scrum, and as in subsequent scenes, the dialogue is overlapping and borderline unintelligible. It is bravura work in its way, but unconnected to any real dramatic energy or political point.

Later, we get some by-the-numbers scenes at the Washington Post, with Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee and everyone doing cynical-wisecrack journalist dialogue to each other. When the Miami Herald gets a sniff of the Hart story from an anonymous informant, there is a bizarre scene in which its journalists have to stake out the candidate’s Washington townhouse for their somewhat chaotic scoop. In fact, as they realise that it is a scoop, the film gets its own weirdly residual buzz of conspiratorial excitement, which is rather undermined in the Washington Post scene when Bob Woodward haughtily declines to spill the beans about the personal lives of important people he knows.

Never is there a scene between Hart and Rice – a scene that might have humanised them both and actually made Hart politically interesting – and not much of one between Hart and his wife, when he is forced to withdraw. We prudently finish the story before the discovery of that embarrassing photo with Rice sitting on Hart’s lap.

So why in the end is Hart interesting? Because he made Bush Sr possible? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s more that he, paradoxically, made Bill Clinton possible, and the voters, wearied by the lacklustre Bush presidency, were prepared to give philandering Bill a chance in 1992. Which perhaps means the second question is: did loyal Lee Hart make Hillary Clinton possible? I’d like to see a whole film about Lee, or a whole film about Donna.

Source: The Guardian
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