The relationship between politics and the media is dissected in The Front Runner, a winning ensemble political drama with shades of Robert Altman. Telling the prescient true story of a politician whose campaign is derailed by an extramarital affair, it boasts on-point late 80s period design (Big Phones! Telegrams! Big Bulky Computers! Smoking Everywhere!), convincing ensemble performances and a fresh approach to the political drama.
The political campaign genre, full of fast-food-eating-interns in shabby offices, journalists shit-talking each other, and earnest questions about the future of the country, is based in idealism, mainly the idea that something like sexual foul-play would derail a political campaign. Its always democrats in these movies. It simply wouldn’t work with Republicans because the moral vacuum at the heart of the party means that the capability for self-reflection really isn’t there. This isn’t to say that Democrats are bad, but when they’re exposed, it’s game over. Republicans, on the other hand – well, just look who is President.
Back in the day, these kind of things completely brushed off people like Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman). Journalists and politicians had rules. Policy is what mattered: only real political scandals like Watergate should be investigated. But now things have changed, and the rise of 24/7 media means that people are deeply interested in the private lives of politicians. As the title suggests, Hart is the Front Runner to become the 1988 democratic nominee for President, surrounded by a phalanx of crisis managers, eager volunteers, press agents and spin doctors. Also joining him on his journey are a whole team of journalists, who quickly notice how much time he spends away from his wife with mysterious blondes.
Hugh Jackman excels as Gary Hart, being able to convey every side of his complicated personality: a coward in front of his wife (Vera Farmiga), a good dad to his daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), a witty politician on TV, and intensely short-tempered when the press get on his wrong side. The only thing we don’t really see much of is his womanising – a crucial seduction scene almost inaudible due to the loud music on the soundtrack. Not only does this ape the perspective of the press, but it means we are not seduced by his behaviour.
At a time when the sexual impropriety (and outright criminal behaviour) of politicians has reached a fever-pitch, the questions the The Front Runner asks seem as relevant as ever. How private should politicians’ lives be? What is the power dynamic in these situations, even when they’re consensual? At what point do journalists cross the line? Who should we be protecting and why? With the presidencies of alleged sexual perverts Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and the very recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, these questions still haven’t been solved. But just notice the difference between what the men and the women in this movie say. It speaks volumes.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the movie is the overlapping dialogue, which is Altmanesque in the way one can hear multiple conversations going on at once. This Altman inspiration is especially apparent in the long tracking shot that opens the movie, which is reminiscent of The Player in the way the camera moves and we are prone to multiple perspectives to the same events. This approach to dialogue and sound mixing is appropriate to the themes of the movie, which is all about how different perspectives jostle against one another. Then, as if to signal this is an important Oscar-play ensemble drama, the soundtrack, opening with Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance”, is replete with jazzy handclaps and bass riffs.
As a result of this technique, it feels like an event movie. Jackman is supported by a wealth of great actors, including JK Simmons, Molly Ephraim, Alfred Molina, Bill Burr and Alex Karpovsky, who fall easily into their roles and give the movie an unforced naturalism. The editing is really fantastic, prioritising no single character, not even Hart, over another. Instead it’s all about “the campaign” – sweeping us up into the allure of running for office and the intense strain everyone goes through maintaining their vision of what they consider to be “good standards” in America. Easily Jason Reitman’s best film.
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