In the annals of US politics Gary Hart stands as one of the great 'what ifs'. A popular senator, he entered the race to be the 1988 Democratic presidential race as the front runner, before his campaign imploded over three weeks due to revelations of an extra material affair he was partaking in. In the cold light of 2018 this scandal all seems so tame, and yet it represented a watershed moment, when the press pushed themselves into the narrative and chased a story that they would have previously ignored.
Jason Reitman's film takes on this moment, covering it from the perspective of Hart's campaign, his family, the journalists chasing the story, and Donna Rice, whose affair helped destroy Hart's career. It is a fascinating attempted to dig into the story, from a director whose best works have the kind of bite and political wit to carry it off.
At the film's core is Hugh Jackman who gives another sterling performance. Hart may not come across as likeable but Jackman certainly presents him as a charismatic presence. The ensemble sparkles, with the script wallowing in some of the political patter and back-and-forth. J.K. Simmons is a welcome presence as Hart's campaign manager, while Vera Farmiga proves, yet again, how deeply underused she has been as she takes on the emotionally affecting role of Hart's wife. If Sara Paxton's Donna Rice feels underserved it is due to a real life narrative that didn't really care about her.
Where the film comes unstuck is in its attempts to parcel out blame. The Front Runner can't decide if Hart is the villain here, if this is a case of a powerful man overstepping the mark, or if it is the press, who dig into a private life to muck up rumour and gossip, taking on this role. The film feels almost out of step with the socio-cultural shift the West has gone through in the past two years and so comes across as out of step.
The Front Runner is at times compelling, at others frustrating. It has an interesting story and has some fun in telling it, aided by a committed turn from Jackman. And yet it feels so small, so unable to offer anything to the current political narrative. At its best it is a film that makes you nostalgic for time when a scandal like this would have ended politicians' careers. For a truly outstanding look at a political campaign imploding seek out Weiner.
This is a London Film Festival preview and The Front Runner will be released on the 11th January 2019.