"The Front Runner" chronicles 21 tumultuous days in 1987 when the worlds of politics, journalism and entertainment tilted on their respective axes, a seismic shift in priorities and protocol that converged on one man. Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, who had narrowly missed running for president in 1984 and was preparing another campaign in the spring of 1987, this time with the wind at his back and the polls in his favor.
As a title card says at the beginning of this perceptive, carefully calibrated drama, a lot can happen in three weeks. Adapted by Jason Reitman from Matt Bai's book "All the Truth is Out," "The Front Runner" plunges viewers headlong into the bewildering jumble of entitlement, idealism, unintended consequences and still-unresolved issues that transformed Hart from a high-minded statesman to tabloid roadkill with dizzying speed.
This is a movie that intends to raise far more troubling questions than it answers, encouraging the audience to emerge from the story, not with a reassuring sense of certainty but rather the disquieting notion that even solid moral reasoning can incur a grievous cost. Most confoundingly, it sheds no light on Hart himself: A man who steadfastly insisted on maintaining his own privacy, whose impressive intellect was couched within an aloof, withholding persona, remains a cipher, the missing core of a movie that's nominally about him but can't seem to get a bead on its own protagonist.
That makes "The Front Runner" less of an emotional than a mental exercise, albeit an engaging and provocative one. Adopting an approach reminiscent of Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie's "The Candidate," Reitman has designed his movie to be an intensely subjective swirl of voices, points of view and densely layered perspectives. Reitman isn't as interested in Hart — played in an awkward, subdued performance by Hugh Jackman — as the vortex of activity around him: the cadre of young advisers and volunteers marshaled by campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), the gaggle of reporters Hart leads to Red Rocks to announce his "campaign of ideas," the serene cabin in Troublesome Gulch where he lives with his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and their kids.
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It's not as if the marriage has always been ideal: The Harts have been separated before, and when the candidate makes a last-minute decision to cancel a trip to the Kentucky Derby to join a swampy Southern fixer named Billy Broadhurst for some R&R in Florida, no alarm bells go off. But when reporters at the Miami Herald receive a tip that Hart embarked on an affair on a trip to Bimini, then stake out the candidate's Washington townhouse for proof, a high-speed disaster ensues.
Hart — equal parts arrogant and naive — tries to brazen it out, thinking that the old rules will apply. Meanwhile, a new form of TV infotainment feasts on a telegenic scandal, white-shoe newspapers find themselves playing catch-up in unsavory games of innuendo, the Hart campaign implodes and the name Donna Rice becomes a inextricably tied to her era's biggest "zipper story."
Reitman visits each of these strands of the story in a breathless relay, one minute eavesdropping on Hart's press corps as they weigh whether to pursue the womanizing rumors, then following the fictionalized Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) back to meet with his editors to debate whether such salacious gossip is worthy of the paper that broke Watergate. Back in Colorado, a young campaign aide named Joe Trippi (Oliver Cooper) tries to help Lee and the Harts' daughter fend off the camera crews camped in their front yard, while a female counterpart in Washington, played in a sympathetic performance by Molly Ephraim, is assigned to "manage" Rice, who despite her intelligence has been reduced to being a bimbo quickly discarded by Hart and his own handlers.
Played by Sara Paxton through dramatic cascades of mascara tears, Rice emerges as a smart, capable, genuinely wounded party in "The Front Runner," which clearly sees her as the victim of both a ruthless male-centric campaign and a hypocritical media culture that has since metastasized to grotesque levels. (Reitman is particularly adroit in staging the moment when Hart meets Rice on the fatally named boat Monkey Business: We don't hear what is said, the camera simply observes as Hart's face lights up while deafening music plays, then cuts to a long shot of the boat bobbing quietly on the water, reinforcing the episode's essential unknowability.)
True to its multifaceted form, "The Front Runner" is careful to give everyone, especially women, their say about male politicians being held accountable after decades of good-ol'-boy courtesy and cozying up. But Reitman and Bai leave plenty of room for doubt, including the infamous back door through which Hart insisted Rice left on the night the Herald spied on him. Although "The Front Runner" was finished long before recent accusations came to light that Broadhurst set Hart up with Rice at the behest of George H.W. Bush campaign consultant Lee Atwater, the openwork of the narrative easily accommodates that possibility.
Most profoundly, the filmmakers put Hart's story squarely in the context of the present, when the norms and traditions that were evolving in 1987 now seem like the quaint artifacts of an era supplanted by a vicious double helix of personal destruction and shamelessness. At one point, Hart bitterly predicted that if media and politics continued apace, the American people would eventually get the leaders we deserve. One can conclude many things from "The Front Runner": that Hart was his own worst enemy, that he was haughty and hubristic and fatally out of touch with the times. But, at least in that particular instance of foresight, it's impossible to say he was wrong.