When rumors surfaced about an extramarital affair, 1988 Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart challenged reporters: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead.” The Miami Herald did, breaking a story about Hart stepping out with model Donna Rice. The result was an immediate political collapse. More to the point, it marked the end of an unwritten agreement that journalists never reported on the personal lives of the pols they covered. That last bit was big because up until then, not a single reporter squealed despite knowing every president — from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson — was getting a little something-something from women they didn’t put a ring on.
This is what writer-director Jason Reitman captures in his terrific drama, “The Front Runner,” a movie about a 30-year-old sex scandal that is more relevant than ever in this era of #MeToo, #TimesUp and Donald Trump. Rice sitting on Hart’s lap aboard a boat deliciously named “Monkey Business” seems ridiculously tame going by current standards, which allow a candidate to say “grab ‘em by the ...” and still get elected, or fraternize with an intern in the Oval Office without getting tossed.
In adapting Matt Bai’s book, “All the Truth is Out,” Reitman and fellow writers, Jay Carson and Bai, do the impossible, eliciting empathy for a man many would characterize as just another politician with a wildfire in his pants. It’s especially helpful that the likeable, heck, lovable Hugh Jackman (yes, Wolverine himself) plays Hart, trademark tousled locks and all. Jackman flashes his too-rare dramatic chops (as opposed to his X-Men mutton chops) to again prove he’s capable of much more than sculpted biceps and superior song-and-dance skills. Jackman might be Australian, but he nails Hart’s all-American charisma. That charm and those looks — mixed with a progressive platform and articulate manner of speaking — seemingly made Hart a lock for the Democratic nomination.
And you can’t help wondering how different history might have been if he had the chance to take on GOP-nominee, George H. W. Bush, instead of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who got slaughtered in the general. Would the succession of presidents leading us to Trump have ever happened? Who knows? Reitman doesn’t offer any answers, he just deftly raises questions about private behavior being fair game for the Fourth Estate. Nor does he sidestep the fact the real victims were the women Hart left in Monkey Business’ wake: Rice (Sara Paxton) and Hart’s wife, Lee, played with no nonsense by Vera Farmiga, who earned an Oscar nomination for Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”
Two scenes involving Rice and Lee standout in a movie brimming with memorable moments. In the first, Paxton squares off with J.K. Simmons (from Reitman’s “Juno”), playing Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon. In full fixer mode, Dixon asks Rice probing personal questions, treating her like every other blonde bimbo. She cites her college-educated credentials and then fires a bomb: “I did all the things you’re supposed to do so no one would look at me the way you’re doing right now.” Later in the movie, the somewhat-estranged Lee shames her husband pretty good, confronting him about the pain and humiliation he caused her and their daughter (Kaitlyn Dever). Farmiga plays it beautifully.
Reitman also casts a talented ensemble to play campaign workers and journalists. Canton’s Bill Burr and Steve Zissis are the Miami Herald reporters breaking the scandal story. Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Tommy Dewey, Oliver Cooper comprise Hart’s campaign staff, trying to “spin a way out of this.” Alfred Molina is Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Mamoudou Athie plays A.J. Parker, the young Post scribe who, despite having a friendly relationship with Hart, fires the kill shot at a circus-like press conference: “Have you ever committed adultery.”
Hart never answers the question and neither does Reitman’s movie. Hart had a knack for untangling the drivel of politics so anyone could understand, but this scandal was something he couldn’t make sense of. “How is this anyone’s business?” Hart bellows. As one character says: “It’s different now.”
Reitman, whose past films include the political satire, “Thank You for Smoking” and “Tully,” aptly maneuvers all the pieces. But it’s Jackman who excels. His Hart is in the right place.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“The Front Runner”
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons and Alfred Molina.
(R for language including some sexual references).