The birth of the modern political scandal is recounted in this stylistic and overlong drama.
Written by Matt Bai and Jay Carson, and directed by Jason Reitman, The Front Runner (2018) dramatizes the news media’s role in U.S. Senator Gary Hart’s 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign implosion. Filmed like a docudrama, the 113 minute period piece alternates between Hart’s campaign and the journalists covering it, to the detriment of both perspectives.
As the film opens, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is riding high off an energetic but ultimately unsuccessful primary campaign for president. Flash forward four years, Hart prepares to make another run for it with his veteran campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), and a cornucopia of campaign staff, including body man Billy Shore (Mark O’Brien) and a fictional scheduler named Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim). Hart tries to maintain a cozy relationship with the press, including with inexperienced Washington Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie).
Things get complicated when Hart attends a party on a yacht called the Monkey Business and reporters at the Miami Herald begin receiving strange phone calls about Hart cheating on his longtime wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga). Frustrated, Hart challenges AJ to “follow him around.” Miami Herald reporters Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (Bill Burr) take this as an invitation and begin surveilling Hart’s apartment, where they see Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) leaving at night. Can Hart extinguish this media firestorm before it’s too late?
With a cast of literally dozens of minor characters competing for screen time, your effort to keep track of them all will be as ambitious as the filmmakers’ efforts to tell this story from every imaginable angle.
Historically, Gary Warren Hartpence (1936 – ), aka Gary Hart, was a U.S. Senator from Colorado from 1975 to 1987. He ran in the Democratic primary for president in 1984 and again in 1988. Media furor over an alleged affair with a Florida model named Donna Rice led to Hart withdrawing from the race, though he later tried to restart his campaign. To this day, Hart and Rice deny having an affair and Hart and his wife of 61 years remain together. Some commentators point to this scandal as a turning point in the way presidential candidates were covered by the press.
According to the real Bill Dixon, there were never any incriminating photos of Hart kissing Donna Rice, as depicted in the film. The National Enquirer did publish a photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap while the senator was wearing a “Monkey Business Crew” t-shirt, but nothing as explicitly damning as shown in the film.
By choosing to include these fictional photos, making Hart look guilty, the filmmakers implied members of the media were justified in pursuing Hart. There’s even an entire scene in which Washington Post reporters discuss jumping on the story based on the incriminating photos. Yet throughout the film, reporters are cast as sleazy and opportunistic. Should journalists ignore a candidate’s personal failings, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence? The Front Runner seems to be saying, ‘yes’.
Like The Front Runner, Chappaquiddick (2017) also dramatized a political scandal involving a Democratic senator. In 1969, an inebriated Ted Kennedy drove into a lake, leaving campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne to drown. That film focused primarily on Kennedy’s actions and his efforts to rescue his political career, so there’s no confusion over what the story was about. The Front Runner should have followed a similar course and focused on one perspective.
The consensus among critics and viewers seems to be that The Front Runner is boring and lacks depth, though critics favored it more (59% critic rating vs 39% audience rating on RottenTomatoes). In my mind, it looks too much like a documentary and not enough like a feature film. The film spent too much time establishing the hustle and bustle of an active presidential campaign and not enough on the actual plot. At least 20 minutes could be cut without changing anything.