“Have you ever worked in politics before?”
“Why do you want to work for Gary?”
“I like his positions.” – Exchange between Gary Hart’s campaign manager and Hart’s alleged mistress Donna Rice in “The Frontrunner.”
It’s a different time.
We keep hearing that in “The Front Runner.” The journalists covering the 1988 presidential race and the campaign operatives dealing with scandalous rumors keep saying: “It’s a different time.”
In Jason Reitman’s whip-smart and funny and poignant look back at a scandal that forever changed the political landscape, famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) initially dismisses talk of covering the stories of womanizing by Gary Hart, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Bradlee tells a story about Lyndon Baines Johnson meeting privately with White House reporters shortly after becoming president.
“You’re going to see a lot of women coming and going,” said Johnson, according to Bradlee. “I expect you to show me the same discretion you showed Jack [Kennedy].”
But it’s a different time, comes the argument from some of Bradlee’s lieutenants. The days of the press ignoring the private indiscretions of the nation’s leaders were screeching to a halt.
Favoring a docudrama style, director/co-writer Reitman nails all the period-piece details, from the newsgathering technology of the time to the dominance of the print media to the chain-smoking to the wardrobe — but “The Front Runner” also has the distinct flavor of a political satire, somewhere between Robert Altman’s HBO series “Tanner ‘88” and “Veep.”
Sure, at times this is deadly serious stuff. But it also has elements of pure farce, as two reporters from the Miami Herald stake out Hart’s townhouse and mark the comings and goings of a young female guest — without realizing there was also a back entrance, so the assumptions they were making were just that. Assumptions. Nevertheless, they ran with a story implying Hart was having an affair, and lives were changed.
Hugh Jackman, sporting a somewhat distracting brown hairpiece and looking vaguely Kennedy-esque, does a solid job of capturing Hart’s impressive grasp of the issues and his undeniable, camera-friendly charisma — but also his arrogance and his unbounding ego. (Hart once said only 50 percent of him wanted to be president, but “the 50 percent that wants to be president is better than 100 percent of the others.”)
MORE FROM RICHARD ROEPER
Hart is the centerpiece of the story, but “The Front Runner” is often more fascinating when the candidate is offscreen and we’re following the journalists covering him and the campaign staffers trying to save him.
Reitman mainstay J.K. Simmons is perfectly cast as Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon, a gruff and cynical veteran of the political wars prone to proclaiming, “I don’t give a f—,” although in fact he believes Hart is a once-in-a-generation candidate who can make a difference.
Under Dixon’s steady guidance, the Hart campaign is roaring through the country, with the candidate nailing it at every stop, from televised policy debates to stunts like grilling burgers in a diner or throwing an ax at a target (and scoring a near bullseye).
Hart seems certain to become the Democratic nominee, and he has a legitimate chance of defeating then Vice-President George H.W. Bush, who was hardly captivating the nation with his dynamic presence.
But then a reporter at the Miami Herald gets a phone call from a woman claiming her friend is having an affair with Hart. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter (Mamoudou Athie, doing excellent work) asks Hart about previous separations from his wife Lee (played by Vera Farmiga) and the current state of his marriage.
Hart explodes and says, “Follow me around, I don’t care. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
In short order, the Miami Herald runs its damaging albeit somewhat wobbly scoop intimating an affair between Hart and the visitor to his townhouse, and the dam breaks loose, with TV trucks camped outside Hart’s home in Colorado, and the candidate facing a media pack that no longer cares about his platform.
Soon, Johnny Carson is cracking jokes about Hart partying on a yacht called “Monkey Business,” of all things, and saying there was so much activity on the boat, “the whales were watching THEM.”
As someone who spent a little time in a big-city newsroom right around the time period of this film, first answering the phones and then working as news reporter and columnist, I can vouch for the newsroom scenes at the Miami Herald and the Washington Post. (I loved Kevin Pollak as the Herald’s gruff editor. He doesn’t have a bottomless reservoir of Jack Kennedy anecdotes a la Ben Bradlee, but he knows how to run a news operation.)
The film is sympathetic to Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), who has always maintained she didn’t have an affair with Hart. In a scene that lasts maybe a minute, “The Front Runner” depicts Rice experiencing a shocking burst of transition from complete anonymity to instant and nationwide notoriety.
“The Front Runner” doesn’t hit us over the head with parallels to today’s political and media world. It doesn’t have to.
‘The Front Runner’
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Jason Reitman and written by Reitman, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, based on Bai’s book “All the Truth Is Out.” Rated R (for language including some sexual references). Running time: 113 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.