Reel Dad: The Front Runner falls short

Movies love politics.

From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to All the President’s Men, from The Candidate to The Ides of March, films crave the chance to explore the intricacies of the political process we call our own. Even when candidates we admire fall from grace, the movies can help us see inside the egos, and beneath the ambitions, to reveal real people hoping that crowds will notice.

The new film The Front Runner tries, so very hard, to navigate its story through the landscape of classic political dramas. Yes, it has all the makings of a compelling story, focusing on the fall from grace of Gary Hart, the senator from Colorado, who seemed to be an answer to the nation’s needs for a few weeks in the 1980s. But he ultimately defeated himself by letting his weakness show in, perhaps, the nation’s first experience with tantalizing headlines that can frame a candidate’s private life. Perhaps it was the first time that the nation, prompted by aggressive media attention, dared to ask, “do the infidelities of a candidate illustrate how a candidate might lead?”

Yes, the fundamentals of this story should make a strong movie. And the film boasts all the right ingredients, from its scintillating plot of Hart’s indiscretions being discovered by the media, to the torment his behavior creates for his family, to the doubt he brings to a room of reporters trying to balance the need to know with the hunger to speculate. But the movie can’t make up its mind what position to take. Should it defend the fallen hero as a victim of an over-aggressive press? Should it accuse the media of going too far to invade the candidate’s private actions? Or should it applaud the voters for discovering, through the media, what the candidate is all about?

From the film’s opening moments, The Front Runner tries to own its narrative. Director Jason Reitman borrows from the work of the great Robert Altman to create a tense world filled with ambitious personalities. His opening shot — running some three minutes — quickly establishes the noise of the moment. Borrowing, again, from Altman’s love of overlapping dialogue, the movie creates a symphony of political sounds as the many agendas articulate their positions, creating a deafening rush of ambition that ultimately overwhelms the principles the candidate tries to communicate. But Reitman lets his story — from the 1980s — get lost in the sensibilities of our world today. And he tries, without success, to use the story from that period of time to help us understand the world we now experience. But the moviemaker can’t make it work because he refuses to take a stand. Great political films take a stand. This one tries many stands.

For Hugh Jackman, the film is especially challenging, demanding the depth of a character actor from a performer who primarily relies on personality. We never get to know who Hart is; all we see are carefully choreographed expressions. Never do we get an idea of what drives the man to serve; we only see a man desperate to protect his destiny. Even in the touching scenes with his wife, played by the always-reliable Vera Farmiga, Jackman seems unable or unwilling to reveal what the character needs. He only shows how the man poses.

Yes, the movies love politics. But this film, because it tries to follow too many stories, ends up with little to say.

Film Nutritional Value: The Front Runner

  • Content: Medium. The story of how a would-be leader is haunted by his actions could paint a fascinating, layered look at a turbulent man. But The Front Runner isn’t sure how to examine the layers.
  • Entertainment: Medium. While Hugh Jackman tries to make the most of playing Gary Hart, and delivers a performance filled with personality, he could have done more to reveal the candidate.
  • Message: Medium. Because the film tries to tell too many stories, without defining its point of view, the story offers less opportunity to learn about Hart than we would like.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to learn more about any historical figure can be worthwhile. But this film could tell us more.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your children about a somewhat significant moment and person in history. But that’s it.

The Front Runner is rated R for “language including some sexual references.” The film runs 1 hour and 53 minutes. Two Popcorn Buckets. 

The Candidate tells all about politics

The political process in the United States is one big media show.

Each election cycle, the campaigns start earlier, the advertisements get dirtier and the candidates become more savvy at playing the media game. Despite their promises — routinely heard at the start of every campaign season — that this time will stay positive — every campaign ultimately descends into a negative narrative.

The larger the campaign, as well, the more candidates use the media techniques borrowed from retail marketing to package their beliefs. And, since television first ran its first Presidential commercial in 1952 (for Dwight Eisenhower) the candidates have searched for creative ways to use the medium to package, from the landmark “Daisy” commercial of Lyndon Johnson’s campaign of 1964 to the “swift boat” ads of 2004. Today, television and new media dominate the campaign landscape, turning what should be a right of democracy into a media sideshow. The only unfortunate thing is that, unlike reality television, we don’t get the chance to vote off a candidate every episode.

The Candidate may have been made in 1972 but its message — that media makes politics superficial — is as relevant today as when the film was made. Today, the packaging of political candidates rivals the promotion of retail products in the use of words and images to motivate action. Screenwriter Jeremy Larner suggests this world in a marvelous script that is years ahead of its time. Except for the styles of clothes and the size of the cameras, the film could take place today, as an idealistic politician resorts to media packaging to defeat a veteran politician in a mythical race for the Senate.

In the film, we are introduced to a young attorney whose father was once the governor of California. Political professionals identify the lawyer — who works at a storefront operation to help those who need help — as someone with potential to run for political office. The attorney, despite his experience watching his father, believes he might be able to do some good; as the campaign unfolds, he begins to realize he has become a pawn in someone else’s chess game.

The Candidate nourishes as it teaches us the danger that retail packaging brings to politics. It clearly shows how difficult it can be to authentically present a candidate in a positive way in a 30-second television commercial so the next best thing can be what we now call “the attack ad”. It also warns us that, as long as voters react to such advertising techniques when they choose whom to support, we will continue to see more and more advertising techniques invade political campaigns. The film suggests that no matter what candidates may say, ultimately “the look” is what sways voters. What should be a right has become a beauty contest. And television loves such reality.

The film may, as well, inspire you to take a hard look at what it takes to be in politics and how important it is for any voter to get to know what candidates truly believe.

The Candidate, from 1972, runs 1 hour and 50 minutes. It is available to stream online.