Art provides a window into our cultural conversations, and it’s been interesting to see what the films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival had to say about what our public discourse looks like right now. Mostly, they’ve asked questions about our current state, one of the most prominent of which is how did we get here? How did America become so entrenched in prejudice that we can no longer see over the walls we’ve built? How did we get to a point where injustice towards women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color is no longer shocking, but shockingly mundane? When, and how, did sensationalism overtake policy discussion in media coverage of politics?
That last question is the one tackled by director Jason Reitman in his drama The Front Runner. The film tells the story of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), the Colorado senator whose 1988 presidential campaign went down in flames after the revelation of his marital infidelity. Reitman’s film pays equal attention to Hart’s campaign and to the press core following him, in an attempt to portray a pivotal moment in America’s political history, when a candidate’s personal life became more important than their voting record.
Unfortunately, the film never quite manages to make an effective statement regarding either the press or the politician at its center. The Front Runner remains — much like the guarded, private character of Hart himself — something of an enigma. In the quest to retain the humanity of the characters on all sides of the conflict, Reitman ends up with a film that’s not just dramatically inert, but is unclear about what it wants to say.
The film starts with Hart’s concession of the democratic nomination at the 1984 national convention, then jumps four years into the future, as Hart announces his bid for the nomination in the 1988 race. He’s a strong contender, charismatic, and hopeful. As his campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) tells his staffers, Hart has a natural gift for explaining political issues in a way the American public can understand. All that promise is put at risk, however, when a pair of reporters catch Hart cheating on his wife. Within a matter of weeks, Hart’s affair becomes the story, and the campaign never recovers.
The ethical question at the center of The Front Runner is whether or not it was right for the news media to break the story the way they did. The film also examines the snowball effect of those choices on political coverage moving forward. The Hart scandal created a sensationalist media atmosphere that, the film implies, reached its apex in the 2016 election. The election of Donald Trump, the reality TV candidate, was the result of certain chickens coming home to roost (an idea explored to greater effect in Errol Morris’ Steve Bannon documentary American Dharma, which also screened at the festival).
To his credit, Reitman tries to humanize the characters on all sides of the issue, in an attempt to cast some shades of gray. It’s an admirable idea, but the lack of commitment to a particular perspective sinks the film. It also goes pretty easy on Hart, and one gets the sense that Reitman and his co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson (themselves experienced both in running campaigns and political reporting) seem to think it’s a real shame that media scandal tanked a campaign that could have done some real good. That may be, but it’s impossible to ignore that if Hart had stuck closer to the morals he claimed, there wouldn’t have been a scandal to report. Whatever good qualities he may have had, he’s just as guilty as the people who brought him down.
The Front Runner refuses to judge any of its characters for their actions, which is admirable in concept, but problematic in execution. Rather than digging its heels in and making a point, The Front Runner is merely content to shrug its shoulders. If the story it’s telling is as pivotal as its director claims, that’s not sufficient. The film’s lack of a definitive statement adds nothing to the conversation it’s trying to be part of, and, in the end, renders it a non-entity.