Hugh Jackman as failed presidential candidate Gary Hart
It's the 1988 US presidential election and the Democrats need someone to run against George H.W. Bush. The leading candidate is Gary Hart, a senator from Colorado. He's charismatic, handsome and articulate. He's topping the polls. The nomination will be his. The White House will surely follow.
But there are worries about Hart. Journalists and political insiders murmur about his alleged infidelities. To the outside world he appears happily married, but innuendo about past womanising lurks below the surface. And this is 1988, a much quainter time in presidential campaigns than we are now accustomed to.
The Front Runner examines the very brief presidential candidacy of Gary Hart. Based on a biography by Matt Bai and directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Tully), Hugh Jackman plays the senator. The film begins with an elegant scene showing Hart's loss in the 1984 primaries. Fast forward four years and Hart's the man. We see his campaign staff being assembled and their early efforts in his election. We also get a glimpse at the journalists covering Hart's campaign.
Hart's troubles begin when he visits Miami and takes a trip on a friend's yacht (the boat is named 'Monkey Business', because of course, it is) and meets a young woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Hart invites her to his Washington townhouse for a weekend and a Miami Herald journalist gets wind of it. Reporters from Miami stakeout Hart and publish their findings. The rest of the press, including the quality mastheads, wring their hands for about five seconds before piling on. Hart tries to defend himself but the pressure is great.
The film shows the scandal from all sides. There's Hart naively maintaining that the average voter won't care. There's the press deciding on whether it's in the public interest to report Hart's adultery. We also see those caught in the middle of the storm: Hart's wife and daughter, Donna Rice, even campaign staff torn over the damage he has caused.
Hugh Jackman portrays Hart well, showing the senator's inability to process just how damaged his candidacy is. Granted we don't dig too deep, why and how Hart got to be what he is remains cloudy. There are great performances from the supporting cast, most notably from Mamoudou Athie, who plays a young Washington Post reporter who cosies up to Hart but ultimately must betray him and from Molly Ephraim, as a Hart staffer uneasy about the treatment of Donna Rice.
The Front Runner reflects on a turbulent period in politics and journalism in the US - a turning point for good or ill. It's a better-than-average history lesson.