The Front Runner

The Front Runner

Jason Reitman (2018)

You pretty much have to be my age (and that’s one helluva lot older than today’s average moviegoer) to remember Gary Hart’s aborted campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president, a campaign that began with high hopes and big ideas, and polls that showed him well ahead of the presumptive Republican nominee, the late lamented George H.W. Bush. But in just three weeks, the Hart campaign had flamed out, extinguished by revelations about Hart’s affair with campaign worker Donna Rice, revelations that were magnified by rabid news reporting and the public’s insatiable appetite for scandal, and no less by Hart’s own refusal to distinguish the accusations by any response, and his stubborn insistence that his personal life was not the business of the public.

Jason Reitman (Juno) directs the film, and cowrote it with Jay Carson (of TV’s House of Cards) and Matt Bai, on whose 2014 book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, the film is based. The film, like the book, focuses on the moment when Hart’s affair with Rice became the focus of media coverage of his campaign, suggesting that it was that moment in the history of American politics that the private lives of politicians stopped being private, and when elections stopped being about policies and proposals and started being about scandals. Of course, it could be argued that gossip, innuendo, mudslinging and personal attacks have been part of the American political process from the beginning—one need only think about Alexander Hamilton’s scandalous affair, or Grover Cleveland’s out-of-wedlock child, or the adventures of Wilbur Mills or Nelson Rockefeller. But at least as far as the modern press goes, it is certainly true that news reporters adhered to a “gentleman’s agreement” and looked the other way when it came to the extramarital exploits of an FDR, an Ike, or a JFK. None of that seemed to have any relevance to presidential matters like foreign policy or the unemployment rate.

And so perhaps it is understandable that Gary Hart thought he might have been extended a similar pass by the press covering his campaign. But he was not living in the same world as that of his predecessors. For one thing, the Watergate scandal had brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1973-74, and it had been news reporters from the Washington Post—Woodward and Bernstein—who had broken the story of political corruption that ultimately brought down a sitting president. The news media, as a result, knew they had power and were hyper-vigilant concerning corruption. Never mind that a private extramarital affair is a far cry from endemic political corruption and blatant misuse of power, it could still be turned into a scandal. For another thing, the religious right, identifying as the “Moral Majority,” had become a force in American politics in 1980, and a sexual scandal was something that could be used to rouse that segment of the population to vocal disapproval: the moral character of a candidate was now as important an issue as his stated policies, for moral character is a predictor of the kind of judgment a candidate might display in office. Hart’s naivete about the new world he was living in comes through loud and clear in this film.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue, presented in the form of a long opening shot set at the Democratic National convention in 1984, a shot that opens in a TV news van and then moves to Hart (Hugh Jackman), then to some of Hart’s campaign workers, to Hart again as he concedes the nomination to Walter Mondale. Mondale, of course, would go on to lose big to Ronald Reagan, which would leave Hart, the surprising runner-up for the Democrats in ’84, as the presumptive front runner moving toward 1988.

We move directly to the beginning of the ’88 Hart campaign, where in rapid-fire succession we hear from Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, a veteran of Reitman’s Juno), giving a pep-talk to his new campaign workers, who for virtually no money will be spending the coming year devoting everything to the cause of electing someone they believe in. We also meet Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (an incredibly underused Albert Molina), talking to his young hot-shot reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie from TV’s The Detour), who will be covering the Hart campaign. Tangentially we also meet Hart’s wife Lee (played by another Reitman alumna, Vera Farmiga of Up in the Air) and his teenaged daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever of TV’s Last Man Standing). We also see a bit of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissus of TV’s Togetherness), desperate to get some kind of scoop concerning Hart.

Hart, portrayed by Jackman as a serious, idealistic, and cerebral politician with a good deal of charisma, announces his bid for the presidency from Red Rocks in Colorado, the state he had represented in the Senate for two terms. From the start, his campaign has momentum, and he is polling well ahead of Bush, the likely Republican candidate. But rumors of marital problems begin to dog his campaign, and reporters begin to ask him questions. Parker, whom he grants a private interview—because, after all, he’s from the Post—cautiously brings up a question about his marriage, at which Hart goes ballistic, insisting that nobody asked such questions of Reagan or Carter. He ends with a frustrated (and clearly hyperbolic) comment that if reporters are so interested in his private life, they can “Follow me around! If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”

Well, you know that can’t end well. Fiedler, of the Herald (motivated, the film suggests, by a kind of pique at being denied a private interview with Hart when the guy from the Post got one) hears rumors about a woman from Miami, then follows Donna Rice (Sara Paxton from TV’s Murder in the First) to Washington and, with a fellow Herald reporter (Bill Burr from TV’s F is for Family) stakes out Hart’s Washington townhouse and sees Rice enter and not come out. They end up confronting Hart in the alleyway behind his house, asking him for a comment while he derides them as scandal mongers. It’s ain’t Woodward and Bernstein—it’s more Abbott and Costello. But it’s the beginning of the end for Hart.

There is an obligatory confessional with Lee, who bears up valiantly with her daughter as they are besieged in their house by reporters, and Hart steadfastly refuses to admit the media have any right to know anything about his private life, refusing even to talk to his campaign staffers about it, so that by the end even Dixon is disillusioned with him. The reporters continue to barrage Hart, with Parker in an ethical quandary about the whole thing while his boss Bradlee says that now the story is out, it has to be pursued, and even Fiedler showing some shame at what he’s unleashed. In the end the film suggests it’s the harassing of his daughter Andrea that compels Hart to quit the campaign, just three weeks after he announced his candidacy.

Overall, Jackman does a competent job, but the film fails to make us sympathetic to Hart, the way we are to the incredulous Lee and even to naïve Donna. We feel more of a frustration with a man who seemed to throw away the chance to be a great force for positive change in the country, through his own bad judgments and stubbornness. This is probably Reitman’s intent. But truth be told, the film begins to go off the rails at about the point where Hart’s campaign does, because it becomes unfocused and degenerates into a series of Statements from all the major players explaining their position on things. There’s less of a plot in the last half hour than there is a collage of Points of View. It is to Reitman’s credit that he does not want to give us a one-sided simplification of a complicated series of issues, but what we get is likely to leave much of the audience confused rather than enlightened. Part of this confusion, too, comes from the myriad characters in the ensemble cast—I have completely left out any mention of the numerous secondary characters because there just wasn’t space here, but again, audiences can only juggle so many separate characters at a time, and it’s hard to get a lot of development for most of them in the film’s 113-minute running time.

There’s also the sense that Reitman wants the film to be relevant somehow, or applicable to politics today, although it’s a little hard to see a connection between a competent, intelligent politician forced out of the presidential race by news of an affair, and a president who publicly boasts about sexually molesting women on Access Hollywood and loses no support at all from the Evangelical Christians who supposedly would have objected to Hart. Maybe the ultimate takeaway is that no matter what anybody says, it’s never really about ethics or character, but only what you can get away with and what you can’t, whether you’re a candidate or the press, and this time the muckrakers scored the biggest goal. Two Jaqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

 

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When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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