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The Front Runner Movie Review

The Front Runner (2018) movie poster The Front Runner

Theatrical Release: November 9, 2018 / Running Time: 113 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Jason Reitman / Writers: Matt Bai (screenplay & novel All the Truth Is Out); Jay Carson, Jason Reitman (screenplay)

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Gary Hart), Vera Farmiga (Lee Hart), J.K. Simmons (Bill Dixon), Alfred Molina (Ben Bradlee), Mamoudou Athie (AJ Parker), Josh Brenner (Doug Wilson), Bill Burr (Pete Murphy), Oliver Cooper (Joe Trippi), Chris Coy (Kevin Sweeney), Kaitlyn Dever (Andrea Hart), Tommy Dewey (John Emerson), Molly Ephraim (Irene Kelly), Spencer Garrett (Bob Woodward), Ari Graynor (Ann Devroy), Toby Huss (Billy Broadhurst), Mike Judge (Jim Dunn), Alex Karpovsky (Mike Stratton), Jennifer Landon (Ann McDaniel), John Bedford Lloyd (David Broder), Mark O'Brien (Billy Shore), Sara Paxton (Donna Rice), Kevin Pollak (Bob Martindale), Steve Zissis (Tom Fielder)

 

Jason Reitman has tackled many topics in his first thirteen years as a filmmaker, including teen pregnancy (Juno), motherhood (Tully), midlife malaise (Up in the Air), and peach pie passion (Labor Day). In The Front Runner, he tackles his first true story,
digging back into his childhood to reflect on how Colorado senator Gary Hart's promising bid for the 1988 presidency evaporated in just three short weeks.

Sharing writing credit with Matt Bai and Jay Carson in adapting Bai's 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Reitman wastes no time establishing Hart (played by Hugh Jackman) as a master politician. Part of it is genetics; the Iowa-born Hart looks great on camera and has luscious hair. But as Hart's seasoned campaign manager Bill Dixon (Reitman favorite J.K. Simmons) points out, he also has a genuine gift for making people understand and care about issues.

The film opens in 1984 (complete with the Columbia Pictures logo that graced Reitman's father's Ghostbusters movies), with Hart narrowly losing the Democratic bid for President that went to Walter Mondale. Four years later, the charismatic and genuine Hart seems poised to fill the White House that Ronald Reagan will be leaving behind after two terms. He's up in the polls by a considerable margin and Dixon and the countless other staff members are just making sure he does what he must to maintain his lead.

Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) evolves from presidential candidate to center of a scandal in Jason Reitman's "The Front Runner."

There's a picturesque announcement up in the Red Rocks of Colorado, an axe throw at a woodsmen competition, and interviews with an assortment of journalists. The one the film is most interested in is young, idealistic Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), who reluctantly and trepidatiously asks Hart about the periods of separation that have occurred throughout his marriage to wife Lee (Vera Farmiga). Hart shoots down the question, challenging Parker to follow him and see how boring his life is.

Before that remark is even published, a pair of reporters from the Miami Herald (Steve Zissis and comedian Bill Burr) have already followed a lead and staked out Hart's Washington, D.C. residence, where a young blonde woman (Sara Paxton) has supposedly been engaging in an extramarital affair with the 46-year-old candidate. With a photographer in the backseat, the Herald reporters' surveillance operation proceeds for days until the three of them run into Hart in his alleyway and spontaneously, uncomfortably question him.

With that, though he doesn't see it for a few days, the front runner is dead in the water. The family home in Colorado becomes a media circus, Johnny Carson is cracking jokes in his monologue, and Hart's plan to deflect questions on the basis that the Herald reporters crossed an ethical line, an argument with some traction among the public (and the film's primary interest), is insufficient damage control. There's no proof that Hart and the young blonde, Donna Rice, have a sexual relationship but a documented history of womanizing suggests there's fire somewhere amidst this quickly spreading smoke.

The Front Runner tells an interesting story likely not well known by anyone younger than forty outside of journalism and political science students. It tells it in the smart, witty, thought-provoking manner we've come to expect from Reitman, one of the best and probably the most accomplished director of his generation. Of his body of work, this most resembles Reitman's debut Thank You for Smoking, the satire about Big Tobacco's lobbying efforts.

In an alleyway, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) confronts the journalists and photographer who have been staking out his home.

Like all of Reitman's films, it's heavy on dialogue and light on action. If that's a concern for you, you are part of the reason why Reitman has struggled to attract moviegoers over the past nine years. His last four films collectively have grossed less than half of what Up in the Air did in 2009-10. You can't pin the underperformance on star power, because Reitman has gotten the likes of Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, and Adam Sandler to work cheap for him.
You can't blame it on limited releases; the two Theron vehicles each opened with four-digit theater counts and barely cracked the box office top ten with low-to-mid seven-figure opening weekend grosses. It's true that critics have not been as enthusiastic as Reitman's earlier films; both Juno and Up in the Air earned Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay nominations from the Oscars, with the latter winning Original Screenplay for Diablo Cody. But apart from Labor Day and Men, Women & Children, the director's films have all been celebrated to varying degrees for those admiring his humanity-driven storytelling, mature characterizations, and sharp, steady direction.

The Front Runner boasts all of that and yet it seems destined to extend the director's commercial losing streak after earning a measly $72 thousand from four coastal theaters last weekend. 'Tis the season for awards fare and this one seems to check all the boxes for what historically constitutes awards fare, with a respected director, beloved actor, and thoughtful treatment of a real piece of (fairly) recent history. And yet that limp opening suggests any awards campaign could be falling apart just as quickly as Hart's presidential one. The lack of an audience paired with a May theatrical release seems to have more or less eliminated Reitman's previous film, Tully, from the conversation, which is a shame. It seems certain to remain in my Top 10 of the year and Theron has more or less secured my one Best Actress vote. But the disconnect between critics and moviegoers on Reitman's fare is puzzling, if not downright disheartening.

There is a limit to the power we wield in this profession; critics can't make you watch Tully or The Front Runner or First Man, just like we can't get you to avoid Venom or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But though they represent merely an opinion, these recommendations for or against do not materialize on a whim. They are formed by countless hours of watching movies and thinking and writing about them. Reitman's movies have captured so many emotions so poignantly and tastefully -- Up in the Air most of all -- that I can't imagine not caring about what he has to say next.

As for Front Runner's seemingly vanishing awards prospects, it's crazy to think that Jackman can't land one of the five Best Actor in a Drama nominations available from the Golden Globes, particularly should they relegate A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, as they have past incarnations and musician biopics, to the Musical or Comedy categories in which he has thrice been nominated and once won (for 2012's Les Mis). Jackman hasn't gravitated to prestige projects in his nearly twenty years of leading man status, returning quite frequently to his signature role of Logan/Wolverine. Having retired that character, Jackman here proves -- as if there was any doubt -- that he's completely comfortable in a meaty role like this.

The large supporting cast around him seizes the limited moments they get, from those returning to troupe Reitman (Simmons, the biggest standout, and Farmiga) to relative unknowns like Athie and Zissis to two actresses that have played Tim Allen's daughters on "Last Man Standing" (Molly Ephraim and Kaitlyn Dever).

This is the kind of movie you should be thinking about for weeks to come, but if nobody attends it, then it unfortunately will become impossible to see again or see at all in mere days.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Widows Can You Ever Forgive Me? Boy Erased Bohemian Rhapsody The Ballad of Buster Scruggs First Man
Directed by Jason Reitman: Tully Men, Women & Children Labor Day Young Adult Juno
The Ides of March Veep: Season One The Post Spotlight The Interview
Hugh Jackman: The Greatest Showman Logan Real Steel The Prestige | Vera Farmiga: The Conjuring Bates Motel: Season One

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Reviewed November 16, 2018.



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