VFF’s ‘The Front Runner’ is a wake-up call

Jason Reitman’s film is politically relevant, but unfortunately forgetful


"The Front Runner," which showed at the Virginia Film Festival Sunday, is a true depiction of sensationalized journalism.

Courtesy Sony Pictures

Academy Award-nominated director and screenwriter Jason Reitman’s new film, “The Front Runner,” was shown as the closing night film for the Virginia Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. last Sunday at the Paramount Theater. The movie challenges, outrages and brings into question America’s current political system. Although the characters and story took place in 1988, this true story is politically relevant now more then ever, regardless of political affiliation. 

Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is a United States Senator from Colorado and running for the presidency for the Democratic nomination in 1988. This came after his unsuccessful run in 1984, when he was a close second behind former Vice President Walter Mondale. With many political opponents deciding not to challenge him, Hart is seen as the front runner. 

Despite Hart’s arrogance and desire to talk only about political issues and not personal choices, a sex scandal emerges and consumes his campaign. He is caught entering his D.C. townhouse with a mysterious woman who had no relation to him, personally or professionally. This occurred without his wife’s knowledge, over a weekend that he was suppose to be campaigning and after he had stated in an interview that personal lives should not be of concern to journalists. 

This scandal is primarily structured within the three weeks of Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign. During those weeks between April 13 and May 8 of 1987, Hart went from the prospective Democratic candidate to a political leper.

What overshadows this film the most are its themes of social commentary about women’s roles in society, the political system and journalism.  

Women as a second class

Of the many themes of “The Front Runner,” the most overwhelming is society's mindset towards women and the broad complications that can manifest. Disturbing and realistic, many of the problems represented in 1988 are still issues for women today. The issues are best displayed through the performances of three types of women.

First is the woman at the center of the scandal, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Hart and Rice’s situation is something seen often with political sex scandals — married politicians sleeping around in secrecy — but the treatment of Rice is appalling.

Rice was in her late 20s during the course of the scandal and had graduated with high honors from the University of South Carolina. Even though she was accomplished academically, Rice was treated like an object. In a pivotal and difficult scene to watch, she admits that she has tried to prove to everyone, men in particular, that she is smart. Her voice and candor shout that she doesn’t want the look of inadequacy that she is accustomed to receiving from men. 

Her story alludes to the fact of gender bias in observing these scandals. The men may sometimes get away with it, receive a slap on the wrists by the public — or it may not even be perceived as news. Yet even when it was a big deal with Hart, the woman was still objectified and thrown to the wolves as a way to tone down the rhetoric of the scandal. 

Next is a working woman trying to make it in a male-dominated culture. Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) is a member of Hart’s inner circle and advises the early days of his campaign and announcement. Once the scandal comes to light, she is tasked with easing the pressure off of Hart and getting the details out of Rice regarding her relationship with Hart. 

Kelly is reluctant, ultimately distancing herself from the campaign. She doesn’t want to trick Rice and throw her to the reporters. She admits that she doesn’t feel pretty and doesn’t experience the objectivity that Rice does. However, it is apparent to the audience that she is very much an object to her male peers and is not respected. 

Third is Oletha “Lee” Hart (Vera Farmiga), Hart’s wife. This performance is the least obvious to the theme, but it stills shows the role of a wife who stays with a continuously disappointing husband.

Lee says that in marriage you make certain “allowances” to your husband. At the same time, she is not happy, almost enraged with her situation. It’s her calmness that speaks louder and makes the audience think she will eventually snap, but she doesn’t, and the Harts are still married to this day. 

Washington as the new Hollywood

In the film, Hart is presented as a man who was very reserved and disliked the idea of sharing his personal life with the general public. By today’s standards, he would most likely not survive a round in the political arena. 

There is this constant question hanging over the film and Hart as to how much the public should know about its political candidates. Hart wishes to discuss the issues rather than go into any detail about his marriage, even when many were suspicious of his “traditional” marriage. 

In another key scene, a journalist asks Hart whether he viewed himself as a moral man, also getting his view on infidelity as a mortal sin and wondering if he had committed adultery. Hart ultimately does not answer the most important question and ends his campaign a few days later. 

Hypocrisy is explored constantly through these scenes. Hart gave the impression of a family man of high morals, yet had an affair. The news cycle asks if this was information the public had the right to know and to what extent. Regardless of the viewer’s opinions on whether such information should be known, it has become increasingly relevant in today’s politics. For example, the media often reports on President Donald Trump’s alleged marital and sexual impropriety.

In another vein, political candidates regularly appear on “Saturday Night Live” during campaign seasons. Candidates release their favorite music, film and food. Candidates tweet, Facebook live stream and post Instagram stories. Where is the line of personal sharing drawn? 

Journalism or tabloid gossip 

The least obvious aspect in the film is on the media. During the scandal, The Miami Herald was the news publication that broke the story of Hart’s affair. However, it wasn’t an easy road to discover, publish and defend the story.

There was hesitation by some of the editors of the paper about the timing and accuracy of the reporting, but eventually the story was published. The Herald viewed it as bringing up a point about Hart’s judgement and his avoidance to deliver the truth to the American public. Others found it appalling that the scandal would be published for everyone to see and judge. 

In the search for truth, news publications have always tried to raise questions and bring answers to their readership. Accountability has also taken a larger role in the era of Trump. However, the question of what needs to be public knowledge continues. 

“The Front Runner” could be studied and unpacked in hundreds of articles about what it was trying to say and what it was trying to ask its audience. It was clear in its social commentary, but for some reason, the film is forgetful.

The writing is good, the cast is well-placed and the story is relevant. But ultimately the commentary is so obvious that it detracts from the performances and the quality of the film. It forgets to tell viewers why watching the film is important in the first place. It doesn’t properly relate it to today’s culture.

There is so much to learn from “The Front Runner,” but just like a sex scandal in today’s news cycle, it will soon be forgotten.

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