Exploring the sad story of Gary Hart in “The Front Runner” raises a question of comparisons. When in 1987 Senator Gary Hart had a lead in the race to capture the Democratic nomination for president a saucy picture of Donna Rice on his lap on a boat named Monkey Business escalated in the press to the point at which he had to withdraw his candidacy in the whirl of infidelity accusations. In the current era boasting about grabbing women by the genitals and having sex with a porn star haven’t rubbed off on Donald Trump. Nor did an Oval Office episode derail Bill Clinton, as his impeachment was defeated.
Hugh Jackman is cast as Hart in the film, directed by Jason Reitman based on a book by Matt Bai, and with a screenplay by Reitman, Bai and Jay Carson. Jackman does a good acting job, although the personality he projects shows more anger and bitterness than one finds in the YouTube clips of the real Gary Hart expressing himself in the wake of the scandal. The point argued by the screen Hart and the real Hart is the same: personal life is none of anyone’s business when it comes to the political arena, and in that sense the film is faithful to the actual position taken. However, Hart exhibited more charm than Jackman does on screen.
But the film hits its mark in depicting the rush to judgment and the speed with which Hart was derailed. (He tried to get back in the race after having withdrawn, but had to back out again.) In the film Hart, as the real Hart did, foolishly challenges the press to follow him around. Indeed they do, staking out his home on the information that Rice is there, with nastiness and a scandal sheet approach, notably by the Miami Herald. A correspondent for the Washington Post, pursues the story too, but as a matter of duty, not sleaziness. As the pressure mounts, Hart is cornered, even though he denies infidelity with Rice.
The portrayals are excellent. Sara Paxton plays Rice as a pretty, rather clueless woman caught in circumstances beyond her control, which dwarfs her credentials as a serious and well-educated person. Molly Ephraim plays Irene Kelly as a Hart representative who pretends to befriend Rice but manipulates and sabotages her. Vera Farmiga is Hart’s wife, Lee, who stands by him but is angered and resentful over what she assumes was a dalliance, depicted as not unusual for him.
There is a superb performance by J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon, who manages the campaign and is hard-nosed about the reality of the situation and tries to get Hart to realize the depth of his plight in the face of Hart’s bitterness and insistence that he knows how to handle the crisis.
“Front Runner” is a political tale for our time. The story and research one might now do may make one wonder whether we lost the possibility of having the good president Hart possibly might have been if only he hadn’t let himself fall into that compromising position. A Columbia Pictures release. Reviewed November 6, 2018.