The Front Runner tells the real-life story of how senator Gary Hart lost his chance to become President thanks to a whirlwind media fiasco. It almost matches the amount of drama we witness in today’s politics on a daily basis. Almost.
While the media has always had an important place in the realm of politics, it seems today that relationship between politics and the media is as strained as ever. Part of the issue in today’s political environment is deciding how the news should be utilized when forming a political opinion. Certainly the media outlets have the right to free speech and to report on people and events as they see fit to the degree necessary of relaying information that is deemed important to the public. But at the same time, how much of the media’s reporting is for their own benefit, to increase viewership or push a specific agenda? After all, reporting the news costs money, and money has to be earned by attracting ears and eyeballs.
Contrary to what it may seem, this confrontation between the media’s self-interest, and the nation’s self-interest has been going on since the invention of the printing press. For as long as there have been people willing to pay to read it, news organizations have been both accurately and sensationally reporting on the political world. What has changed over time, however, is the nature of the political theater and its impact on the media’s approach to reporting the news. At some times in the past, for one reason or another, the media has been hesitant to publish incriminating reports. At others, events have played out and required a less tactful approach. Over time, the nature of politics has not necessarily changed, only the line over which the media is not willing to cross. The Front Runner is a film that examines this fascinating principle by retelling the story of disgraced senator Gary Hart through his battle with the media that ultimately cost him the opportunity to become President of the United States.
The film opens with a lengthy tracking shot covering the end of his campaign run for President in the 1984 election after the Democratic National Convention. It is a chaotic and overwhelming way to open a film. There are many conversation threads happening at the same time between members of the media and Hart’s campaign staff. We get a hint of the disdain for the media from Hart’s staff - it’s a necessary evil they have to live with. The media gets them the attention they need to raise awareness and ultimately secure votes. But the media is also hungry for a not-always-pretty truth, and in a way they are the ones with the power. With this scene, the film establishes the essential struggle of American politics, and democracy in general; having an idea to make the world a better place, and being able to do so are two very different things. Politics is as much about timing as it is about leadership. At the end of the scene, Hart’s team declares their efforts a success, despite him bowing out of the race. Hart explains, “Now they know me” with a drink in hand inside his crowded hotel room. An ominous quote which really defines the film.
Four years later, Hart returns to the campaign trail, trying to hit the ground running and retain the success from his prior efforts. With his momentum he is labeled as an early “Front Runner” in the upcoming Presidential election. However, when the Miami Herald receives an an anonymous tip accusing Hart of having an adulterous relationship, they decide to investigate. Staking out in front of Hart’s townhome, they witness him with a young woman. The newspaper decides to publish their findings before Hart’s team has a chance to comment, so that the Herald can be seen as the first media outlet with the story. Hart himself becomes upset that his private life is now becoming public, and thinks it is beneath him to respond to the allegations. His team ultimately resorts to a tactic of trying to avoid the topic, but increased media pressure on them and Hart’s family soon pushes everyone to a breaking point.
The film builds over time, culminating in Hart’s tense battle with the media. We see the toll that it takes on him, relegating an intelligent and personable man to bouts of rage and speechlessness. The films’ best attribute is its pace. It continually chugs forward, with quick back and forth interjecting dialogue, changes in perspective and focus. The approach can be overwhelming at first. Like the political realm itself, the film is cutthroat and ruthless, but eventually the audience is able to settle in. The moments which allow for introspection into Hart’s personal life allow the audience to take a breath. It is also refreshing to have the story contrasted from both the business-like motivation of the media as well as Hart’s team’s improvisational responses.
Hart’s team, and the media hounding him, are portrayed by a well-rounded cast of veterans and up-and-coming actors. Hugh Jackman is at the helm of the movie, and fits the role well, but I don’t think his performance here is better than anything else he’s done. The film’s haphazard presentation hurts it in this regard. Most of the representation of Hart behind the curtain comes from his campaign staff who have a very business-first approach. The film attempts to portray him as the rare dignified politician, but we’re never sure if his demeanor in front of the podium is just a public persona. The film never actually shows the audience the truth behind the events that would lead to his downfall. Guilt is assumed, but the film never seems to want to actually depict Hart in a compromising position. The film also seems unsure of whether or not the media should be reprimanded for its actions. The reports that follow Hart seem to be motivated by not getting fired rather than an actual inquisitriveness for the truth, which actually makes the audience feel sorry for them. There’s also a looming question of the film’s historical accuracy. The plot is overall truthful in its depiction, but there are moments that are brought together for cinematic convenience rather than realism. All of these little questions add up and ultimately hinder the effectiveness of the film.
When comparing this film to other recent Oscar-hopeful dramas examining the connection between those in power and the media, it ultimately falls short. It misses the inquisitive and just motivation behind Spotlight. It misses the empowerment and charm of The Post. The direction of The Front Runner is murky, and the cast doesn’t stand out enough to pull it out. It is also missing that universally-appealing emotional jolt which makes you want to get up off your seat and do something. The ending more or less fizzles out. There is anger focused towards the media’s actions and the state of modern politics, but those are emotions many of us had when walking into the theater in the first place. The audience simply doesn’t feel sorry for Hart. The film doesn’t do a good enough job to humanize him. There is nothing about how he is portrayed which would lead us to believe he shouldn’t have expected his personal life to become a focus once he stepped into the spotlight. That’s what I think the film misses - the additional tug of empathy. Because of this, The Front Runner will go down as just another Oscar-hopeful movie. The message may be timely, pointed, and important, but the film just isn’t powerful enough to carry it.