What Lessons Will Democrats Learn From ‘The Front Runner?’

Columbia Pictures

We generally don’t make a habit of blaming art for world events, but there are times when it’s fair to wonder. Times like a movie about a presidential campaign being released on election day, for example.

Not to mention, there’s plenty of evidence supporting a certain amount of overlap between how politics is depicted onscreen and how politics is conducted in real life. The Obama administration, for instance, was famously overflowing with staffers who spent their formative years obsessing over Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Vanity Fair identified the phenomenon succinctly in 2012, writing “…the ‘precocious’ kids who grew up in the early part of the last decade worshipping the cool, technocratic charm of Sorkin’s characters have today matured into the young policy prodigies and press operatives who advise, brief, and excuse the behavior of the most powerful people in the country.”

It would be crazy to think that onscreen politics and real politics don’t affect each other. And more to the point, Vanity Fair‘s words were surely fawning when they wrote them, but in 2018 we’ve (hopefully) come to realize that treating life like a West Wing episode maybe isn’t the best recipe for political success. Every day Donald Trump is president seems to prove that expecting to be vindicated by history is a surefire way to get fucked by the present.

2018, meanwhile, brings us, into the thick of awards season, The Front Runner, a Jason Reitman-directed film (adapted from a book by Matt Bai) about Gary Hart’s doomed 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Specifically, it depicts the three weeks where it all went to shit, when Hart went from the Democratic frontrunner who polls had 12 points ahead of the presumed Republican nominee, George Bush, to out of the race because he got caught having an affair.

Like The West Wing, The Front Runner stars a cast of smart, fast-talking, gruff-but-idealistic campaign staffers and journalists, led by JK Simmons as Bill Dixon, all working for a brilliant, square-jawed, idealistic policy wonk, Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart, who loans his spare Tolstoys to Washington Post journalists and has the hair of Don Johnson, according to his pollsters. It feels like DNC staffers are exactly the target audience for this film.

The film itself is slick and entertaining, but even more so than that it seems worth wondering what message its target audience will take from it. Otherwise, why tell it in 2018? 30 years later do we see Gary Hart as hero or villain, noble or naive? Do we pine for the old days and seek to recreate them or recognize failures and work to avoid them?

Certainly, the film is an improvement over, say, Chappaquiddick, in that it treats both Donna Rice, Hart’s mistress, played by Sara Paxton, and Hart’s wife, Lee Hart, played by Vera Farmiga, like actual people, with independent character arcs. Chappaquiddick gave about five minutes total screen time to the wife and mistress combined. The Front Runner does seem to care about Rice and Lee Hart as complex characters and not just props for Gary Hart. At one point Rice, listing off her impressive resume to JK Simmons’ Dixon, says “I did all the things you’re supposed to do to keep men from looking at me the way you’re looking at me now.”

Like Chappaquiddick, though, much of The Front Runner comes down to the question of damage control. In this case it’s not necessarily an issue of morality, it’s about whether Gary Hart, who more or less has an open relationship with his wife, owes the electorate insight into his unconventional sex life.

Hart’s downfall doesn’t come down to his cheating, his lying, or even his lashing out at the publisher of the newspaper who caught him, under shady circumstances — the Miami Herald’s Bob Martindale, played by Kevin Pollak, who Hart confronts at a campaign event. No, Hart’s death knell comes later, when he falters at a key moment. The cover-up is worse than the crime, so the saying goes, and Hart blows it.

He has a few options. Tell the truth (“yes, I cheat on my wife sometimes, we have an understanding”), lie (“she wasn’t my mistress, you’re printing lies”), or dodge (“none of your damn business”) — but the point isn’t necessarily that he chose the wrong option, it’s that he waffled. It didn’t matter what tack he chose so much as that he chose it decisively, and he failed. Like dogs who give chase when they see your heels, it’s when the mob senses fear or hesitation that they tear you apart. That’s the way The Front Runner depicts it, and it feels accurate (certainly it squares with most of Jon Ronson’s case studies in public scandal in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed).

Watching The Front Runner in 2018, it’s impossible not to compare Hart, undone after getting caught with one mistress, to Trump, accused of rape by his first wife, accused of sexual assault by at least 22 women, caught red-handed paying hush money to a porn star mistress, caught running a fraudulent college, inheriting the family business through massive tax fraud, etc etc, and still holding the job of President of the United States. Sure, we could put it all down to “times are different now,” and certainly they are, but how different? Donald Trump’s entire run is synonymous with “Make America Great again,” which was originally a Ronald Reagan slogan. And now comes this movie from the Reagan years.

The crucial and obvious difference between Hart and Trump, specifically the way they handle scandals, at least the way The Front Runner depicts it, is that Hart maintains the capacity for self-reflection. He wonders, publicly, and to himself, whether he’s been wrong, something Trump would never do. Trump would seem to have done far more illegal, impeachable things than even Nixon ever did, basically wearing the emoluments clause like a giant diaper every day since he got elected, but he remains forever immunized from consequences by his total lack of shame. Nixon resigned partly to preserve his party and protect his friends. Trump has neither, only people he seeks to profit from and people who seek to profit from him. He’s like if a corporation actually was a person.

I have my doubts about whether Gary Hart was really as decent as The Front Runner depicts him. His characterization fits the mold of politicians mainstream liberals love to see onscreen — charismatic, idealistic, wonkish, and largely above “politics” — with shades of Primary Colors, Mike Nichols’ roman á clef about Bill Clinton. There are reasons to believe it’s all fairly heavy on the bullshit and overly kind to politicians. Yet the essential takeaway of The Front Runner, and specifically the scene where Hart loses the battle for hearts and minds, remains poignant: in politics, decency is a detriment.

Objectively, The Front Runner makes it pretty clear that it was Hart’s inability to lie with a straight face that ultimately torpedoed his chances. The question is whether you think Gary Hart shares the blame for that with the cruel world.

The Front Runner itself doesn’t seem to come down hard either way, but it does end with Hart delivering a speech praising idealism, and urging young people to maintain their idealism as a force for good. It’s unclear whether this is meant to be heroic or tragic, seeing as how the result of Hart’s idealism (flawed, situational, and adulterous though it was) was George Bush winning an election in a landslide. The Front Runner smartly intercuts Hart’s paean to idealism with staffers cleaning out their desks because of that idealism. Clearly it’s not mindless cheeleading, it’s ambiguous.

Without assigning Jason Reitman a particular intention, I pray to God that the takeaway from The Front Runner was that Gary Hart was a fool who we can learn from, and not Gary Hart was a hero who was too pure for this world. It might seem obvious that it should be the former, but when you put a handsome Hollywood actor in a period wig doing something “decent,” even losing, anything can happen. Let’s stop lionizing losing “with honor,” shall we?

Gary Hart in The Front Runner essentially embodies all of mainstream Democrats’ worst impulses. The impulse to self-police to your own detriment. The impulse to govern like you’re trying to get an A from “history” rather than keep power from enemies who are actively trying to destroy you. And above all, the impulse to try to schoolmarm the mob into acting better rather than recognizing the mob for what it is and trying to utilize it to get what you want. If that doesn’t seem “noble” or West Wingy enough, think about all the actual lives lost when you lose nobly.

As depicted in The Front Runner, Gary Hart was a guy who lost a game because he refused to recognize it as a game. Let’s hope this is an occasion for learning how to play that game better and not nostalgic yearning for the way things were.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.