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

Senior Editor
11.06.18 21 Comments

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.

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