“The Front Runner” chronicles 21 tumultuous days in 1987 when the worlds of politics, journalism and entertainment tilted on their respective axes, a seismic shift in priorities and protocol that converged on one man. Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, who had narrowly missed running for president in 1984, was preparing another campaign in the spring of 1987, this time with the wind at his back and the polls in his favor.
As a title card says at the beginning of this perceptive, carefully calibrated drama, a lot can happen in three weeks. Adapted by Jason Reitman from Matt Bai’s book “All the Truth is Out,” “The Front Runner” plunges viewers into the bewildering jumble of entitlement, idealism, unintended consequences and still-unresolved issues that transformed Hart from a high-minded statesman to tabloid roadkill with dizzying speed.
This is a film that intends to raise far more questions than it answers, encouraging the audience to emerge from the story with the disquieting notion that even solid moral reasoning can incur a grievous cost. Most confoundingly, it sheds no light on Hart himself: A man who insisted on maintaining his privacy, whose intellect was couched within an aloof, withholding persona, remains a cipher, the missing core of a movie that’s nominally about him, but can’t seem to get a bead on its own protagonist.
That makes “The Front Runner” less of an emotional than a mental exercise. Reitman has designed his movie to be an intensely subjective swirl of voices, points of view and densely layered perspectives. Reitman isn’t as interested in Hart – played in an awkward, subdued performance by Hugh Jackman – as the vortex of activity around him: The young advisers and volunteers marshaled by campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), the reporters Hart leads to Red Rocks to announce his “campaign of ideas,” the cabin in Troublesome Gulch where he lives with his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and their children.
It’s not as if the marriage has been ideal: The Harts have separated before, and when he makes a last-minute decision to cancel a trip to the Kentucky Derby to join a Southern fixer named Billy Broadhurst in Florida, no alarm bells go off. But when reporters at the Miami Herald get a tip that Hart embarked on an affair on a trip to Bimini, then stake out the candidate’s Washington townhouse for proof, disaster ensues.
Hart – equal parts arrogant and naive – tries to brazen it out, thinking that the old rules will apply. Meanwhile, a new form of TV infotainment feasts on a telegenic scandal, white-shoe newspapers find themselves playing catch-up in unsavory games of innuendo, the Hart campaign implodes and the name Donna Rice becomes a inextricably tied to her era’s biggest “zipper story.”
True to its multifaceted form, “The Front Runner” is careful to give everyone, especially women, their say about male politicians being held accountable after decades of good-ol’-boy courtesy and cozying up. But Reitman and Bai leave plenty of room for doubt,
Most profoundly, the filmmakers put Hart’s story squarely in the context of the present, when the norms and traditions that were evolving in 1987 now seem like the quaint artifacts of an era supplanted by a vicious double helix of personal destruction and shamelessness.