Film review: The Front Runner doesn't quite do fascinating tale of Gary Hart justice

Senator Gary Hart, played with tub-thumping conviction by Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner
Damon Smith

POLITICS and sleaze have become depressingly frequent bedfellows, ushering us into an era where the press and social media scrutinise the moral fibre of public servants.

Director Jason Reitman's sharp-suited drama The Front Runner unfolds several years before the Monica Lewinsky's scandal.

Co-written by Matt Bai and Jay Carlson, it focuses on three tumultuous weeks in the 1980s, when political journalism abruptly shifted focus from manifestos to the personal lives of one candidate.

Senator Gary Hart from Colorado, portrayed with tub-thumping conviction by Hugh Jackman, is the charismatic figure caught in the eye of a raging media storm, who refuses to answer questions about an extra-marital affair when he would rather concentrate on policy.

"I've been doing this for 20 years," rages Hart. "The public doesn't care about this."

He was wrong and his fall from grace is fascinating food for thought in a film that doesn't deliver the landslide victory it promises.

Four years after conceding the race for the Democratic presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, who subsequently failed to prize the keys to the White House from Ronald Reagan, Senator Gary Hart (Jackman) is widely regarded as the Democrat front runner to lead 1988 America.

The handsome politician from Kansas hits the election trail flanked by wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). Hart has a gift for headline-grabbing slogans – "The world changes when young people give a damn!" – and soundbites about Perestroika, aided by a crack campaign team under the direction of no-nonsense manager Bill Dixon (JK Simmons).

The politician has a healthy lead in polls until journalists from the Miami Herald doorstep Hart at his Washington DC townhouse, where he has been entertaining a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton).

Hart's deputy campaign manager John B Emerson (Tommy Dewey), press secretary Kevin Sweeney (Chris Coy), policy aide Doug Wilson (Josh Brener), schedule coordinator Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) and aide-de-camp Billy Shore (Mark O'Brien) are embroiled in a race against time to salvage the team's hard work.

Hart reluctantly telephones his wife.

"What they're going to write... shouldn't ever be written. I can't seem to stop them..." he blathers.

"I feel so stupid," he adds pathetically.

"Good," tersely replies Lee. "You should."

The Front Runner is tethered to Jackman's performance and he compels us to see beyond the flaws of his statesman.

The script is underpowered and refuses to delve deeply into emotional meat of those three weeks, though. Like Hart's campaign, Reitman's film is a slickly orchestrated, entertaining circus that stumbles at the final hurdle.

THE FRONT RUNNER (15, 113 mins) Drama/Romance. Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, JK Simmons, Tommy Dewey, Josh Brener, Mark O'Brien, Chris Coy, Molly Ephraim, Sara Paxton, Kaitlyn Dever. Director: Jason Reitman.

RATING: 6/10

Released: January 11 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

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