‘The Front Runner’ Energetically Revisits Gary Hart’s Rise and Scandalous Fall

The tale of former Colorado Senator Gary Hart has suddenly gained a new relevance. His was the story of a man who could have been president, but personal baggage brought it all down. “The Front Runner” tells the story of the scandal that ended Hart’s bid for the White House with a mixture of message movie and juicy thriller. Politics is partly theater. This is a film about a man who knew perfectly how to get through to the masses, until he couldn’t hide the blemishes. “The Front Runner” is being released to coincide with the midterm elections and it does make for an entertaining pursuit after you’ve cast your vote.

It’s 1988 and Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is gearing up for the presidential race that marks the end of the Reagan 80s. Vice President George Bush is going to represent the Republican ticket and on the Democratic side, Hart represents a younger face focusing on a new generation of voters. Hart’s family is picture perfect with wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). His staff is run by the tough and focused Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), who gives rousing pep talks to young volunteers. Over at the Washington Post it’s election season and writers are following all the hot leads, with chief editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) demanding quick copy. The Miami Herald is also trying to get a good scoop and reporter Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis) comes across a potentially explosive one when Hart is seen leaving his town house with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), an attractive much younger woman who is quite obviously not his wife. A media circus soon descends on the Harts as everything about their marriage comes under the microscope. It gets worse when photos emerge of Hart at a boat party with Rice. Dixon starts trying to run damage control with fellow campaign staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim). But Hart doubles down and refuses to admit or reveal anything, even as everyone around him feels the ship sinking.

With “The Front Runner” director Jason Reitman never seems to find a firm footing when coming to conclusions about Hart, what intrigues him and writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson is the media storm that swirls around the scandal and political life itself. Reitman has directed biting satire in “Thank You for Smoking” and more introspective drama with “Up in the Air,” here he goes for a middle of the road approach. The tone of this movie never gets too edgy, but it is never slow either. The opening scenes capture the hustle and bustle of a political campaign, the sleepless hours, endless phone calls and public appearances. Hart as played with smart charm by Jackman is half-legislator and half-performer. He knows in public he has to put on a show, at one point throwing an axe at a target for the cameras. His message sounds like early Obama, but then he goes to the boat party and a pretty blonde walks by.

When the scandal kicks in the movie becomes slightly jumbled but maintains an engaging tone. There’s a tabloid, guilty pleasure spirit as Fielder gets a photographer to stake out Hart’s townhouse. They corner him in an ally and he becomes a fumbling example of guilty denial. What exactly did Hart do with Rice? The film never explicitly says, but we get the idea when Lee bluntly tells Hart he deserves to be humiliated for embarrassing his family. Washington Post writer AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) tries to become the voice of reason, asking Hart once about his temporary separation from Lee. But soon Parker faces what is essentially the heart of the story: When does a public official’s private life deserve to be solely private? Consensual adults can do as they wish, but what does lying about personal matters say about a politician’s merit for ruling? These questions are somewhat too big for the format of “The Front Runner,” which works best as it hurtles into a dogfight between Hart and the media.

Jackman’s performance is the anchor here. He plays Hart like a dogged fighter whose pride and weird naivety prove fatal. He really does think he can just cruise through the scandal by saying nothing, even as Dixon tries to shake him into reality. Maybe to survive such a gale you do need to be like the current commander-in-chief, a reality TV figure who knows how to manipulate the airwaves. Vera Farmiga’s Lee Hart channels all of the quiet anguish of being pulled into public scandal against your will. The film gives us just enough of a sense of how their marriage works, including its very personal, secret corners. Steve Zissis has more fun as Tom Fielder, who in real life did help pioneer a style of gotcha journalism we’re still living through.

The overall tone of “The Front Runner” is a bit lighter than something like George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” there are dashes of humor and irony throughout the material. It’s also not a partisan film. Reitman is not making some Democrats versus Republicans parable like Rob Lurie’s “The Contender.” Instead it’s a character study of the clash between personal folly and public life. Groundbreaking it is not, but it is always a fascinating train wreck to behold.

The Front Runner” opens Nov. 6 in select theaters and expands Nov. 21 nationwide.