Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Coming off of The Greatest Showman, the hit Academy-Award nominated starring Hugh Jackman in his most recent performance, one might expect Jackman to continue with the blockbuster momentum he was quickly attaining, with the soundtrack of Showman dominating charts for weeks on end. However, Jackman in both a mannerist and altruistic fashion instead turns to director Jason Reitman to create what is effectively a push for Jackman as an awards-caliber actor. Playing former US Senator Gary Hart, the actor iconic for his work as the clawed superhero X-Men portrays Hart and the disastrous decline of his presidential campaign in a short matter of three weeks due to adultery allegations from the press. It’s certainly a film that fits with what voters tend to enjoy in this age, given the more frequent number of older members of the Academy despite their best efforts to insert fresh, new blood. But as a result, Reitman’s latest directorial effort will be judged more harshly based on its merits and downfalls. But even without that handicap, The Front Runner still cripples itself with a meandering form of storytelling that never takes any legitimate risks. Nothing about The Front Runner is bold, surprising or even remotely innovative. The film is shockingly shallow with thematic material, material that would have made Jackman’s take on the memorable historical event all the more digestible and earnest. Supported by a moderate performance from lead Hugh Jackman, The Front Runner ultimately topples over itself in its simplicity and failure to peek just an inch deeper into the thematic material of Gary Hart’s pivotal conclusion to his presidential campaign.
Featuring a screenplay from Jay Carson, director Jason Reitman, and Matt Bai, who also wrote the book that the film is based on, The Front Runner often falls subject and prey to casual inklings of modern screenplays. For one, the film seems to preface the fact that being simplistic is far better than being branching. And from the writers’ point of view, this decision isn’t unreasonable. With recent films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald placing their exposition-heavy, confusing plots in front of a massive, blockbuster audience, The Front Runner almost does the complete inverse, delivering a film that is easy to understand and interpret from the beginning to the very end. It never aims to create subtle, character-driven moments that would enhance the film’s meaning and relevance. Instead it opts for the simplest way of telling its rather unfathomable scenario, leading to a collision of issues.
The film consequently becomes short-changed and hollow in its attempt to depict Hart and his love affair scandal ruins his presidential campaign. Such an event demands subtlety to contrast with the loud, boisterous moments that come from the primary antagonist of the film-the press. It leads to a story is so one-note that it never held my suspense, even in the direst of situations for Jackman’s portrayal of Hart. And for a historically-based experience that can’t offer any innovations and originality without generating intense backlash, The Front Runner misses the mark entirely on how to create a relevant and engaging story to propel a film.
But even with the lackluster screenplay, Jackman’s performance as Hart is still a delight to watch. Over the years, Jackman as an actor has proved his range and this attribute of his comes once again in great effect here. Delivering soft mannerisms that the script is completely devoid of, Gary Hart, despite the moral issues and mistakes that the character constantly makes, becomes ever so slightly relatable and even pitiful as his public perception quickly degrades. It may even have a chance of ranking as one of the best performances of the year if it wasn’t for the murky quality of the script.
Another notable highlight of the film is unquestionably Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart, Gary Hart’s wife. Portraying such a role in such an event is no laughing matter as the character is constantly placed under tight emotional strain, forcing Farmiga as an actress to embrace a livid range of emotions. And fortunately, Farmiga handles it masterfully, introducing subtlety and voice to an already fascinating character. As for the other members of the supporting cast, they serve no real purpose other than meaningful cameos. J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon may have the most screen time, but his character and performance is so lackluster and bland that it’s hard to recognize that he contributed to the film.
As a collective whole, The Front Runner unfortunately slips behind in so many regards, from its lackluster screenplay to its bland performances. It never captures the intensity that such an event would garner, instead resorting to a more reserved experience that is a one-note ride from the beginning to the end. Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart if he ever was a “front runner” in awards season, quickly falls to the side lines due to a structurally stupendous film that is bland and pathetically told.
Score: 4.3 out of 10
Gary Hart, former senator of Colorado, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987. Hart's intelligence, charisma and idealism makes him popular with young voters, leaving him with a seemingly clear path to the White House. All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair surface in the media, forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life.
THE FRONT RUNNER opens in Atlanta and nationwide on November 16th, 2018.