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Front Page - Friday, December 7, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘The Front Runner’ spotlights turning point in US politics

I imagine Gary Hart’s ego swelled a bit when he learned Hugh Jackman would be playing him in “The Front Runner.” Who wouldn’t puff up at least a little upon learning that one of Hollywood’s most handsome actors would be playing them in a movie? I bet he even bragged to his friends.

I can also imagine Hart’s pride deflating like an untied balloon when he saw Jackman’s moppy hair and perpetually austere expression. Then again, Hart has experienced greater disappointments in life, so he probably handled the revelation with grace.

“The Front Runner” is a biographical drama about Hart’s rapid fall from the top of the heap of candidates during his bid to win the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. With Jackman leading the way with a perfectly calibrated and skillful performance, the film opens with Hart’s loss to Mondale in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary. It then shifts its focus to Hart’s 1988 campaign and the Miami Herald’s dogged pursuit of the story that the presidential hopeful was having an affair.

Given the age in which we live, it might be hard to imagine a time when “the affairs of men” of power were of little concern to the press or public. (You’ve all heard the stories about Kennedy’s dalliances, but have you read about Johnson’s? He gave his predecessor a run for the money in that department.) But by many accounts, there once existed between politicians and the press a “gentleman’s agreement” that certain behaviors were left off the printed page.

Based on the 2014 book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” by Matt Bai, “The Front Runner,” chronicles the moment when all that changed – when the press and voters at large began holding the nation’s leaders accountable for their bad behavior, especially when it contradicted the values they claimed to espouse.

As director and writer Jason Reitman and co-writers Jay Carson and Bai replicate history – or make what appears to be an earnest attempt to do so – they capably explore several themes, including the role of the press in politics and the question of whether a public official’s private life is anybody’s business.

Reitman fashioned a messy, slightly anarchic world for this story. While preparing to direct, he must have watched “All the President’s Men” repeatedly and consumed a steady diet of director Robert Altman’s 1970’s filmography, as early scenes in “The Front Runner” are laden with overlapping dialogue.

Taking another cue from Altman, Reitman also employs multiple points of view and allows his camera to wander through roomfuls of campaign staff or journalists, picking up snippets of conversation.

Steven Spielberg employed this kind of gritty, nattering realism to great effect in “The Post,” but Reitman pushes it even further, giving “The Front Runner” a deep-seated sense of authenticity. One of the impressive things about “The Front Runner” is how it’s able to convey its story through this disarray.

(If this is what political campaigns and big-city newspaper offices are really like, with reams of people in nebulous roles creating a cacophony, I don’t see how anything gets done.)

If any viewers feel alienated by this approach to filming, the acting will give them something firm to grab hold of. Clearly, Jackman was not hired for his good looks or his uncanny resemblance to former U.S. Sen. Hart, but for his exceptional abilities as an actor.

The Jackman seen in “The Front Runner” is the fierce, calculating thespian of “Les Misérables” and “Prisoners,” not the popular leading man of “X-Men” or “Kate and Leopold.”

Jackman disappears into the role of Hart, creating an idealistic but also emotionally distant man who responds to the challenge to his career with moral indignance. As the press closes in and Hart’s opportunity to become president slips out of reach, you can see his incredulity in Jackman’s eyes.

Reitman and the other writers gave Jackman plenty of opportunities to shine, and Jackman rises admirably to each one. When Hart tries to address the stories about his affair in a press conference and is hit with a hard question, Jackman perfectly portrays the candidate’s awkward struggle to maintain his composure and ward off the attack.

Jackman’s fellow actors surround him with equally strong work. Of particular note is the performance of Mamoudou Athie as A.J. Parker, a fictional Washington Post reporter who secures several key interviews with Hart. Through that process, Parker transforms from a nervous young reporter into a courageous, mature journalist.

Athie does such good work, and Parker is so crucial to the story, I wish he’d been real. Perhaps Reitman saw in Parker an opportunity to portray the faction of the press that rose above the sensationalism of Hart’s story to ask important, probing questions on behalf of the American people.

“The Front Runner” is a solid piece of cinema that tells a story with great relevance to the current political climate. It also leaves the answers to its questions up the viewers. It’s as though Reitman is saying to audiences, “Does it matter if the leader of the free world cheats on his wife? Discuss as you leave the theater.”

If I have any issue with the film, it’s Reitman’s subtle suggestion that the Hart scandal cost America a potentially great leader, and that the years that followed might have gone very differently had Hart been president.

Hart was not fully invested in becoming president. “Only half of me wants to be president,” the New York Post quoted him as saying. “The other half wants to write novels in Ireland.” In other words, Hart was no Robert Kennedy, and Reitman is reaching a bit in suggesting he might have been.

Hart was, however, portrayed by Hugh Jackman in a movie, and bragging rights rarely come better than that.