Fractured approach stymies Runner
“Stupid is as stupid does.”
That famous Gump-ism swirled ‘round and ‘round in my mind as I watched Jason Reitman’s not-as-good-as-it-should-be biopic, The Front Runner, play out. Chronicling Gary Hart’s rapid fall out of the 1988 presidential race, the film casts a wide net when it comes to who is to blame for the scandal and goes so far as to mark this event as a turning point in American journalism, the moment when candidates’ private lives became public fodder. This may be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no denying that this story was unique in terms of the sensational details it contained and how ineffectively it was handled by Hart’s campaign as well as members of the press themselves. Too bad Reitman’s account lacks the sense of urgency or salaciousness that marked the story as it was exposed on the national airwaves.
Told via flashback, the film covers the three-and-a-half-week period that began with the senator from Colorado announcing his candidacy. Riding high from an impressive run in 1984, Hart (Hugh Jackman) threw his hat in the ring on April 13, 1987, with his loving wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Deaver) by his side. All seems well until the candidate attends a party on a yacht called “Monkey Business” owned by a campaign donor. There he meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and a relationship begins that would lead to the ruination of both.
The film plays coy as to what happened on that fateful night. We never actually see Hart and Rice together on board or a recreation of the infamous picture of her sitting on his lap that was later leaked to the press. The script by Reitman, Jay Carson and Matt Bai never states that these two were involved in an affair, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions. In doing so, they make it clear that the focus of the film is not on Hart’s private life but on the media’s role in creating news by reporting on the personal goings-on of public figures.
According to the movie, two jealous women and an ignored reporter led to Hart’s downfall as a pair of Rice’s rivals are shown calling the Miami Herald to expose the affair, while journalist Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis) is more than eager to follow up on it after being given limited access to the candidate while on the campaign trail. There’s more than a bit of conjecture at play here, but the Herald reporters are accurately portrayed as the buffoons they were, rushing to judgment with a flawed story that later came back to haunt them.
The most frustrating thing about Runner is Reitman’s inability to generate any sense of momentum or cohesion with the material. The bits and pieces composed of reactions to the scandal from campaign workers Lee and Hart are jumbled about, some of them, Rice most notably, not fully explained. Reactions to the aftermath from key players are missing as well, denying the film and the viewer a sense of closure it desperately needs.
Hart’s biggest flaw was that he overestimated the American people, thinking they would be more interested in his positions on policy reform than his scandalous private life. At one point in the film, he says, “The public won’t care about this.” In the end, Hart wasn’t done in by any supposed affair – it was his inability to understand the very people he strove to represent that was his Waterloo, a bitter pill to swallow for such a man genuinely driven by good intentions.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.