Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 6, 2021)
For a look back at a controversy that derailed a presidential campaign, we go to 2018’s The Front Runner. Though he lost the 1984 Democratic nomination, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) emerges as the lead candidate for the 1988 campaign.
In April 1987, Hart formally launches his bid but he almost immediately encounters controversy, as rumors of his extramarital affairs dog him. These intensify when news outlets spot pretty blonde Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) at Hart’s DC residence, and eventually Hart’s personal life threatens to harpoon his campaign.
Every year we get a mix of movies that look like Oscar shoo-ins but then fall far short of expectations. For 2018, Front Runner acted as a front runner for that slot.
And it deserved to be an also-ran, as it's not a particularly good movie. Not that it's a terrible film, but it lacks real purpose and tends toward lecturing and moralizing too much of the time - inconsistently, I might add.
At times the movie seems to want to berate the way serious newspapers "went tabloid" for the Hart affair. It clearly casts shame on those who pursued Hart's illicit dealings and pompously embraces a higher moral purpose.
But the movie wants to have it both ways, so it finds room to bolster a free press - vaguely. It prefers that moralizing I mentioned, a factor that makes it feel oddly out of place in 2022.
Given all the threats to the First Amendment mounted by a certain president who left the White House about a year ago, a film that appears to encourage voluntary suppression of journalism seems misguided.
Front Runner also immediately loses credibility due to sloppy choices. The film starts with the 1984 campaign and that part of the story culminates in the aftermath of that year's Democratic National Convention.
Then a title card reads "four years later" - even though the story itself picks up in either late 1986 or early 1987. The entire film ends in spring 1987, less than three years after the events from 1984.
When I reviewed Bohemian Rhapsody, I discussed how many liberties a biopic deserves to take. If filmmakers can't even count, that's a major problem, as it casts doubt on everything to follow.
If those involved don't understand that 1987 minus 1984 equals three, not four, why would I trust them with anything else they present as fact? Or did the filmmakers intend for the audience to believe the movie takes place in 1988?
I don't know, but it's sloppy and off-putting. As is the case with Rhapsody, I lived through these events and remember them too well to accept poor accuracy as "cinematic liberties".
Even without these gaffes, Front Runner just lacks much obvious insight or purpose. It fails to explore its lead character well, as we get little sense what made Hart tick.
Oh, the movie gives us a superficial view of the man as one obsessed with his policy ideas to the exclusion of all else, but it sheds no light on why he led a personal life that took so many risks. We get allusions to affairs prior to 1987 but no real introspection, so Hart remains an oddly one-dimensional character.
No one else gets much room to breathe either. The film utterly wastes Very Farmiga as Hart's wife, and a cast packed with talent lacks the ability to elevate their parts due to the inherent thinness of the script.
By the way, who thought it was a good idea to cast Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee? Molina couldn't look less like Bradlee if he tried, as he's the wrong ethnicity and a good 80 pounds too heavy.
I didn't even realize Molina was supposed to be Bradlee until someone called him "Ben". I nearly jumped out of my seat with shock given what an awkward fit Molina makes for that role.
This is one area where prior films sabotage Molina's viability. We've had more than 45 years during which we viewed Jason Robards as "Ben Bradlee" - and based on what I've heard from those who knew Bradlee, Robards nailed the part. More recently, Tom Hanks offered his own turn on Bradlee, one that differed from Robards but not in a severe manner.
In terms of acting, Molina does fine in his limited screentime, but the utter lack of resemblance to Bradlee becomes a bridge too far. If we didn't already know Bradlee so well from Robards and Hanks, maybe he'd succeed, but with those actors - and reality - as a backdrop, Molina becomes a weird casting choice.
As for our lead, Jackman disappoints. I like him as an actor and think he boasts dramatic talent, but here Jackman does little more than scowl and appear annoyed. It's less a performance and more outtakes of Wolverine when he gets cheesed off at Cyclops.
By the way, Hollywood needs to cast plain-looking women to play plain-looking characters. When we see Rice bond with Hart campaign staffer
Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim), we’re supposed to view Rice as substantially more attractive than Kelly.
Despite efforts to “plain her down”, Ephraim remains very good-looking – better-looking than Paxton, in my opinion. I guess we’re unilaterally supposed to see “blonde hotter than brunette”, but I can’t make that leap.
I won't call Front Runner a truly bad film, but it's a significant letdown given the talent involved and its potential. Superficial, erratically paced and generally dull, the movie goes nowhere.