The Front Runner (2 stars)

The Front Runner

LFF 2018: Tantalising but ultimately unilluminating political drama from Jason Reitman, starring Hugh Jackman

The cautionary tale of a politician who went from hero to zero in just three weeks, Jason Reitman's ambitious, tantalising drama promises much in its intention to portray how the American political landscape shifted seismically in 1988.

Gary Hart was a US Senator from Colorado who was youngish, vigorous and reasonably good looking (although nowhere near as handsome, natch, as Hugh Jackman, who skilfully plays him as the studly contender with the fatal flaw of hubris). In 1988 he had a commanding lead in the polls over his Democrat rivals to run for the presidency against George HW Bush. Gary had film stars in his camp, an army of supporters charmed by his man-of-the-people-with-big-ideas spiel, and a cynical, savvy campaign manager in Bill Dixon (played by JK Simmons, stealing the picture).

Alas, Senator Hart can't keep his pants on. And while, historically, the media had long turned a blind eye to the hanky panky of presidents and likely leaders, something had changed. When a Miami newspaper gets a tip that Hart is having an affair the proverbial is about to hit the fan. One really cannot blame the papers and talk show comedians for seizing on an adultery that began on a dodgy campaign donor's yacht called 'Monkey Business'. What a gift. All the debates – at campaign HQ, in editorial meetings at The Washington Post (where Alfred Molina looks nothing like famed editor Ben Bradlee, but that's the least of our problems) and in the Harts' home – about morals, ethics, character, judgement and what people have a right to know are rendered moot when there's a pretty blonde and a booze cruise ripe for the front page.

It would have been nice to know what was so great about Hart's ideas, if his loss to politics was as lamentable as we are apparently supposed to believe. There are a lot of Altman-esque scenes in which everyone is talking over each other, which may accurately convey the atmosphere of backroom politicking but add to the confusion and growing sense that no one is terribly clear about what this film is trying to say.

Why did journalists take a different view of a downed zipper situation in 1988 than they had before? How did Hart's downfall lead us to an unrepentant 'pussy grabber' in the White House? It's also a let-down that the women are underused – especially Vera Farmiga as the humiliated Mrs Hart, besieged in her rustic kitchen by baying reporters. Only Simmons's terse, ripe one-liners convey much passion or fury. Otherwise, despite a talented cast and a wealth of potentially meaty themes, this comes off disappointingly mealy-mouthed, and it's hard to care.

Screening on Sun 14 and Mon 15 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2018. General release from Fri 25 Jan.

The Front Runner

  • 2 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 53min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Jason Reitman
  • Cast: Molly Ephraim, Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga

The story of 80s US Senator Gary Hart (Jackman), who looked like a potential Democratic candidate for president until he was brought down by his inability to keep his pants on. Simmons steals the movie as Hart’s cynical campaign manager but despite a talented cast it comes across as confusing and mealy-mouthed.