“How did we get here?” asks Jason Reitman in “The Front Runner,” dredging the past for answers with this ambitious — and almost intentionally unwieldy — Altmanesque re-enactment of the three weeks in which Gary Hart’s bid to become the 1988 Democratic nominee for president was undone by tabloid-style monkey business. Hugh Jackman proves an inspired candidate to embody Hart, downplaying his brawny movie-star persona, while still conveying the twinkly-eyed sex appeal that would have made the photogenic and well-spoken senator from Colorado a logical choice to follow the country’s first movie-star president, had it not contributed so directly to his undoing.
Hart was the man who would be king, poised to succeed Ronald Reagan, but because he withdrew, America got George H.W. Bush instead. Had Hart won, history would have gone otherwise. As political reporter Matt Bai writes in his book “All the Truth Is Out” (which serves as the backbone of Reitman’s film, which he and Bai co-wrote with former political consultant Jay Carson), had Hart won, “it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.” America wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Our relationship with Russia would have been different (Hart was friendly with Mikhail Gorbachev and says he would have invited him to the inauguration). And Donald Trump might still be selling neckties and frozen steaks, rather than running the country.
To tell that story would be science fiction, whereas Reitman finds himself more interested in historical fact, proceeding on the assumption that most Americans — especially those who lived through the Hart scandal — have a foggy idea of how it happened. Until Bai’s excellent autopsy of a book, few had any notion of the significance what has since become a political footnote played in reshaping how the press reoriented its approach to covering candidates’ private lives going forward.
Hart’s implosion, centered on whether he committed adultery with a model named Donna Rice, was virtually unprecedented in U.S. politics — not the adultery, but the notion that it might be newsworthy (apparently, FDR, JFK, and LBJ had all conducted affairs before and during their time in office, and the press dutifully looked the other way). By 1988, times were changing. The Watergate scandal had transformed the role of the media, which had not only managed to expose and unseat a corrupt president (Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, immortalized by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men” and by Tom Hanks in last year’s “The Post,” appears here, too, this time played by Alfred Molina), but also took it as a personal responsibility not to let another slip past it un-vetted. The technology of news coverage was evolving quickly as well, and Reitman goes out of his way to depict such changes, from fax machines to satellite-equipped TV news vans, without fetishizing, as so many period films do, painting the Miami Herald reporter who got the scoop, Tom Fielder (Steve Zissis), as some kind of slimy, bottom-of-the-food-chain sell-out — the Judas of political journalism.
So, let’s say that Bai is correct that what happened to Hart marked a turning point in campaign news coverage (certainly, there had never been an exposé where reporters went looking for scandal in quite this way, sneaking around a politician’s home like snoops for a Hollywood gossip magazine). But how does one dramatize this shift? As if drawn to such challenges, Reitman’s never-easy approach is to re-create the three-ring circus that is the presidential primaries, opening with an elaborately choreographed three-minute group shot — ersatz Altman, à la “Nashville” — of the press corps gathered outside the 1984 Democratic National Convention, closing on a monitor of Walter Mondale deflating Hart’s chances with a pop-culture zinger: “Where’s the beef?”
Hart may not have nabbed the nomination, but the campaign put him on the nation’s radar, and by the time the film jumps forward four years later, he’s ahead by 12 points in the polls. Reitman and editor Stefan Grube orchestrate high-energy scenes intended to convey the feeding-frenzy dynamic of the campaign, cross-cutting between various press gatherings in which rumors of Hart’s “womanizing” first surface and a strategy roundtable overseen by Hart’s idealistic campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), who vowed never to step foot in Washington again after what’s about to happen to him here.
Considering co-writers Bai and Carson’s real-world experience working on both sides of such a show — Bai as a journalist, Carson as a campaign consultant — one is inclined to trust their testosterone-fueled, Ivy League-educated behind-the-scenes banter (often spoken by slobs with food in their mouths). And yet, “The Front Runner” too often relies on the tired press-as-mob-of-hungry-jackals cliché, while conspicuously lacking the kind of elegant, eloquent rhythms of a crackling Aaron Sorkin script, relying instead on an obnoxious marching-band score to power through all this scene-setting. Jackman, as Hart, should cut through the noise with his camera-ready persona, speaking truth to power, but instead, he has a hard time being heard much of the time — which is (conveniently) how Reitman plays the scene aboard the Monkey Business yacht where he met Rice (Sara Paxton).
Early on, the only character who gets a scene to herself is Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), seen playing piano at her home in the aptly named town of Troublesome Gulch, Colo. For everyone else, the point seems to be that privacy — not just personal discretion, but alone time — is something they must learn to live without on the campaign trail. And then Washington Post journalist AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie, playing a composite of pretty much every journalist who wasn’t Fielder) spots Hart making a personal call from a phone booth, and the press start putting two and two together. But it’s not until Fielder receives an anonymous tip from one of Rice’s friends (whom Bai identified as Dana Weems) that he takes the initiative to do what few if any political reporters had done before: Instead of letting candidates set the agenda with issue-related talking points, he changed the subject, proactively refocusing the conversation around Hart’s private life.
Today, the public’s memory has crystallized around the idea that Hart challenged the press to “Follow me around, I don’t care” (a line uttered to the New York Times Magazine’s E.J. Dionne Jr. but attributed to the Post here) and that the Miami Herald took him up on the offer, staking out his home in Washington, D.C. But it didn’t quite happen that way — in fact, as Bai goes to great lengths to point out in his book, Fielder plucked that line from an advance copy of the Times Magazine’s profile and retroactively used it to justify the stakeout, depicted here like a bumbling Keystone Kops routine, building to a “gotcha” scene in Hart’s alley where he confronts these amateur paparazzi.
There are so many ways Reitman could have orchestrated this entire retelling: privileging Hart’s version, focusing on how his wife or Rice took it, studying how it affected his advisers and staff, or turning the journalists involved into heroes or villains. Instead, he goes for the all-of-the-above approach, offering a prismatic sense of what happened from all of these various perspectives, the vast majority of them male (reconciliation scenes with Farmiga are the most powerful, although they’re almost certainly made up). Instead of acknowledging that each of these parties might remember things differently, and playfully weaving contradictions into the sprawling narrative, he averages everything together into a disappointingly toothless account that everyone can agree on, tacking on what sounds suspiciously like a #MeToo moral, spoken by a female reporter in the Washington Post office who labels Hart a chauvinist: “He is a man with power and opportunity. And that takes responsibility.”
Three decades on, practically every political sex scandal since — from Bill Clinton’s intern indiscretions to John Edwards’ illegitimate love child — has kept Hart’s name in circulation. And yet, in the age of Teflon Don (who actually seems to be admired by some for his crotch-grabbing chutzpah), it’s hard to imagine that what happened with Rice could still sink a politician’s career. Is that the message Reitman means to impart? If so, it’s different — and far more shallow — than the one that inspired Bai’s book. It’s too late to redeem Hart’s reputation, although “The Front Runner” should do some good for Reitman’s career, at least. When taken together with “Tully” (which premiered just seven months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival), the “Juno” director’s got his groove back.