Hugh Jackman is Gary Hart, the early front runner for the Democratic nomination in the 1988 presidential election, whose campaign was cut short by rumours of marital infidelity. Oh, how things have changed.
The story of Hart is a peculiar one to bring to film since it’s not obviously cinematic. The allegations and the reporting on them were remarkably tame compared to other political scandals before and since, and the fact the candidate hasn’t even won the nomination means the stakes are fairly low.
But the film isn’t about a struggle for the soul of America, more a struggle for the type of politics it should have. It explores the extent to which the private lives of politicians are relevant to their fitness for office, and the extent to which journalists are justified in investigating them.
The debate is represented by Hart, who is idealistic to the point of naivety in his desire not to bend his private life to fit a political narrative; and a young journalist (Mamoudou Athie) who faces pressure to press Hart on the allegations from his colleagues at the Washington Post, which has now been in more films than some Afflecks.
There are no clear heroes and villains, allowing for a nuanced debate. We never see Hart give rousing speeches to adoring supporters like George Clooney in The Ides of March, and Jackman plays the part with some detachment. But those investigating him do so on flimsy grounds and his desire to get back to talking about policy is reasonable.
The result is a film which eschews passionate drama in a way that may not be to some people’s tastes, even if it benefits from strong performances from Jackman, Athie, and J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager. It’s well directed by Jason Reitman, successfully bringing to life an 80s campaign which looks like a school council election compared to today.
And of course it’s impossible to see any new political film without seeing it as a comment on Trump. Here, the relatively minor indiscretions of a man of principle result in his downfall, while in present-day politics the President can pay off porn stars (in violation of campaign finance laws) and continue unscathed.
This at least gives us sympathy with Hart for being around at the wrong time. If he was a couple of decades later he may have been able to carry on, and a couple of decades earlier may have escaped the reporting entirely, as characters remark both JFK and LBJ did.
A film which is more interesting than it is enthralling, The Front Runner is an unusual take on an unusual man.