There used to be a time when a sex scandal would sink a political career, or maybe the press wouldn’t care so much about more frivolous stuff when there were headier issues to discuss.
Director Jason Reitman’s new movie The Front Runner takes a look at how that time might have been when Gary Hart was caught with a woman who was not his wife during the 1988 presidential campaign.
After a brief opening in 1984 showing Hart (Hugh Jackman) losing the Democratic nomination for President to Walter Mondale, we skip ahead four years to see him trying again, this time as a clear front runner over every candidate in both parties. He already has something of a history as a womanizer thanks to a separation at one point in his past, but Hart doesn’t see the need to discuss such things. As explained by his top campaign aide Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), Hart has an uncanny ability to explain tricky political issues in a manner anyone can understand, but he also doesn’t quite get the need to do a lot of things normal politicians do like get endorsements and going to photo shoots or even sharing anything about his personal life with the general public.
And that, more than anything else, is what makes Hart tick: he does not believe his private life is anyone’s concern but his own. As much as various obviously uncomfortable newspaper reporters keep asking him about things like his marriage to longtime spouse Lee (Vera Farminga), he just does not want to discuss these things with anyone. He doesn’t think it’s interesting and insists the public would actually rather see him discuss the issues.
And then, of course, he meets a young woman named Donna Rice on a boat literally called the Monkey Business.
Now, to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t really dwell much at all on what happened between Rice and Hart. Rice, when she does appear on screen, comes across as a smart woman who made a bad choice and wants to avoid the harassment that is certainly coming her way. As it is, women in the movie actually seem more interested in what happens to Rice or to women in general while Hart just wants his privacy back against increasingly rabid press that only wants to ask Hart about the one thing he doesn’t want to answer.
Is this movie too timely? On the one hand, we have a story here about how the press isn’t doing its job the right way by covering a candidate’s personality rather than his or her actual policy stances even as more conscientious reporters wonder if what they are covering deserves to be newsworthy. On the other, we see a movie that suggests the press should look away from a candidate’s personal flaws at all times. Is there a right answer to this, or is there a happy medium between the two extremes? I don’t know, and though The Front Runner is hardly a bad movie, it doesn’t really offer a good answer either. 8 out of 10 exact moments when you can see Hart’s campaign rip in two.