The Front Runner review – Hugh Jackman makes headlines in nuanced drama | Toronto film festival 2018

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What is newsworthy? What should those working at a paper of record be devoting their time to while figuring out what can be filed away as frippery? It’s certainly a debate that’s plagued newsrooms more than ever since Donald Trump slithered his way into the White House with political journalists reduced to covering a daily whirlpool of sex, sleaze and stupidity.

In Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner, he takes us back to 1988 as US senator Gary Hart, played by Hugh Jackman, seemed like a no brainer for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was handsome, charming, intelligent and his relative youth (he was 25 years younger than sitting president Ronald Reagan) made him popular with younger voters. But he was also a private man, uneasy when attention moved away from his potential policies and onto his personal life. He didn’t see how posing with his wife and daughter on the front of People magazine would benefit him as a politician.

The irony of being so guarded was that journalists were even more eager to find out about his life behind closed doors and not without reason. For a while, whispers of infidelity had followed Hart, nothing substantiated but a lingering suspicion that he was something of a womaniser. As rumours turned into a legitimate, albeit rushed and improperly handled, story, Hart was forced to finally open up to the public.

With a script co-written by Reitman, policy advisor Jay Carson and journalist Matt Bai, whose book serves as inspiration, as well as a deft infusion of real footage from the time, there’s an authenticity underpinning the portrayal of events in The Front Runner that lifts it above the less-than-groundbreaking set-up. We’ve seen dramatised stories of cheating politicians a great many times but there’s a refreshing lack of sensationalism, given the writing team, and events feel presented truthfully but also with style. The dialogue has a less smug Sorkinesque beat to it and Reitman choreographs scenes of chaos with finesse, from frenzied campaign headquarters to tense newsroom meetings.

Hart was an idealist whose initial naivety ultimately transformed into something closer to willful ignorance or perhaps even arrogance and the film offers a nuanced take on both him and the events that unfold around him. Can someone who is untrustworthy as a husband be trustworthy as a politician? Should your personal life dictate what opportunities you’re afforded in your professional life? There aren’t easy answers provided in the film and Hart is neither a villain or a victim. Despite Jackman’s undeniable movie star charm, he plays Hart with either an understated dignity or an uneasy unknowability depending on the scene. It’s one of his better performances and not many actors would be able to combine the believable presence of a much-loved politician with this lingering shadow following him everywhere he goes.

Reitman shows the effect that Hart’s indiscretions and attempts to deny them have on both the young campaigners and journalists who surrounded him. So many of them wanted him to represent the future and there’s a quiet tragedy to its dissolution, viewed most powerfully through his closest female employee, played with conflicted empathy by Molly Ephraim, who sees the callous way he abandons the woman he had an affair with. There’s a chilling cut to her reaction during a final press conference as she views a man she once admired fall from grace.

Aside from Jackman’s strong lead performance, there are also small, impactful turns from JK Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager and a slightly underused Vera Farmiga, as his betrayed wife, who delivers a poignant speech in the final act. The film’s avoidance of invented conflict and its steadfast refusal to instruct audiences how they should feel about Hart, how it was handled and the ensuing consequences might frustrate some and there are admitted shortcomings. There are a few sags after a dynamite first act and the script skimps on some of the details of Donna Rice, the woman Hart was linked to, and instead we see her as little more than a naive pretty face.

Sony has rather strangely moved The Front Runner to open on midterm election day, something that strikes one as a mere publicity stunt rather than an attempt to make a comment about the current state of US politics. Given the timing, some might also see it as an attack on the press but there’s no ambiguity about whether or not this was fake news, just how, when and where it should be reported.

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Source: The Guardian
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