Review: “The Front Runner” asks about the cost of accountability
“The Front Runner,” directed by Jason Reitman of “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Tully,” stars Hugh Jackman as U.S. senator Gary Hart during the final three weeks of his 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The movie seeks to present the campaign, which is derailed by the reporting of Hart’s affair with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), as a turning point in our nation’s political sphere wherein a candidate’s personal life is used as a litmus test for their governing ability. Reitman is decidedly on a soapbox, but he does not have a clear stance on whether or not we are better for the investigative reporting that brings cameras into bedrooms and back alleys.
There are points where Reitman displays the cruelty of such reporting, as with Rice’s wide, teary eyes as she naively asks if her parents will find out about the affair, or through the suffering of Lee Hart (Vera Farmiga) when her husband’s affair becomes a household obsession. But there are moments when Reitman’s screenplay (which was co-written by Matt Bai and Jay Carson) seems to instruct the audience on the necessity of such cruelty by having one female reporter claim,“He is a man with power, and that takes certain responsibility.” It’s up to the viewer to decide whether this responsibility is on the newspaper to report what Hart calls “sleaze and gossip,” or on the politician to be of resolute morals.
My own opinion of the balance between personal and public life continues to oscillate. There are actions that decidedly make someone unfit for a position of power — sexual assault, prejudice, perjury and anything criminal — and I hope that the media seeks to fulfill its watchdog duties in those respects. But I also believe that reporting too closely on a politician’s private life, even in benign ways such as reporting on Joe Biden’s obsession with ice cream, dilutes our understanding of what we are fighting for and about in this country. During the movie, Jackman explodes at his aides, claiming that his aversion to capitulate to the media and get ahead of the story is based on his belief in the “sanctity of [the election] process.” He claims he simply does not believe his personal life should be included in the story of his bid, and that his story is instead one of progressive ideals, not rumors. Jackman is able to adroitly portray Hart as a man who could plausibly believe in a lofty principle such as issues-first campaigning.
And indeed, the press from the Miami Herald are depicted as bumbling, grasping and unprofessional. They ambush Hart in his alley after falling asleep during their stakeout, missing whether or not Hart’s alleged mistress left during the day or was still inside. The integrity of their reconnaissance is also damaged as they didn’t realize there was a back door to Hart’s D.C. home. Their journalism is half-baked and sloppily done, a story rushed for headlines and punchiness. The Miami Herald publishes the story to great national intrigue, not bothering to fact check. The article receives a degree of mockery, but later, in the fast talking room of the Washington Post, the editors decide to investigate further and publish an expose on the affair. One young reporter (Mamoudou Athie), who had become close with Hart on the campaign trail, interrupts the gaggle of senior reporters and says, “Just because some other paper uses gossip as front page news doesn’t mean we have to.”
The screenplay attempts to delineate the “before” and “after” of journalistic ethos — from when newspapers and the public kindly turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of politicians and public figures to after the Hart campaign, where we became obsessed with the private lives of those with power. The “after” is clearly defined when the Washington Post’s editor tells Athie’s character that “it does [mean we have to report the story]; it does now.”
Athie is characterized as a man with morals, while the editors and the reporters from the Miami Herald are presented as power-hungry and slovenly in their desire for the story. Athie gets screen time devoted to the intricate character building — such as a bout of nervousness in airplane turbulence — that Reitman uses to demonstrate Athie is a person first, reporter second. It is clear that Reitman prefers this kind of journalist to the undeveloped characters of the Miami Herald, whose only given personality traits seem to be a rabid hunger for “gotcha” moments.
But what do we owe to those in dogged pursuit of truth? Aren’t our secrets as dirty and disheveled and embarrassing as the reporter’s conduct during the investigation? I see Reitman’s decision for the ill-preparedness of the Herald reporters as a parallel to the public’s ill-preparedness to hold men and women of power accountable without the admittedly dirty work of investigative reporting.
That Hart was a progressive with progressive values gives nuance to the story, as the movie claims Hart would have likely been both the Democratic Party’s nominee as well as highly competitive against the Republican nominee. We are led to believe that Hart might very well have been president over George H.W. Bush if the sex scandal with Rice had not occurred or not been reported on.
But neither the audience nor Reitman is prophetic; we can never know how the hope and promise of the Hart campaign would have stood independent of the story. The only thing we can decide on is whether or not we are better off in the “after,” where a candidate’s suitability for office is intertwined with their disposition. We must also decide if the obsession with the minutia of our public figures’ private lives has desensitized us from truly disqualifying acts, and thus caused us to fail (and fail again) in the voting booths, in the halls of the senate and behind the cameras of the world’s most important publications.
Coming away from this film, audiences will have to grapple with their stance on a politician’s ability to have a private life. In the case of Gary Hart, the true victims were not him and his political career but his wife and daughter who bore the brunt of the judgement from the public. With Reitman’s sympathetic direction toward Lee Hart and her daughter, the audience is forced to consider the trade-off of assessing the moral character of our leaders at the expense of the innocent peripheral characters. What we do with our ability to hold public figures accountable is still unfolding, but I’d like to hope that in the here and hereafter, we will do something with it.