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The Front Runner ***1/2

It’s a compelling tale of a talented politician’s downfall, and a chronicling of the media’s turn from covering up for philandering politicians to exposing them. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

"I swear this is true," The Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) says midway through "The Front Runner." "New Year's Eve after Jack died, Lyndon Johnson sits down with a whole bunch of us, pulls us in close and says, 'Boys, you're going to see a whole lotta women coming in and out of my hotel suites. I want you to pay us the same courtesy you did Jack.' And we did."

Oh, how times change. The largely friendly "understanding" between press and politician has become equally adversarial over the last 30 years, in part due to the proliferation of news outlets. It's interesting that as the media has grown Americans' values have also evolved, often reflecting the values of their news source. The byproduct is that it is harder to assess what morals, if any, truly matter to the country as a whole.



This evolution is pertinent to "The Front Runner" because the philandering of its subject, Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), will certainly remind many of allegations against Presidents Clinton and Trump. To his credit, co-writer and director Jason Reitman (“Juno”) is even-handed in his depiction of the media's decision-making, Hart's defiance of sharing personal info with the public, and the public's perceived desire to know it at all. Reitman isn't really judging here so much as he's documenting a moment in which the media (and society along with it?) started to care about adulterous politicians.

The story centers on Hart's candidacy for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president. Going into the primaries, he was the front-runner. But as rumors about an extramarital affair began to circulate, Hart was defiant rather than willing to deal with the bad publicity head on. He insisted on privacy, and didn’t believe the American people cared about his personal life. He found any questions along these lines rude and invasive, which made him look all the more guilty. His advisors encouraged him to get out ahead of the situation, while he hoped it’d go away on its own. It didn’t.

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"It's up to us to hold these guys accountable," Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) of The Miami Herald says of the press' obligations to the American people. Later, Hart's wife of 30 years, Lee (Vera Farmiga), says, "These people [the press] want to feel outrage for me, but it doesn't belong to them." These quotes, as well as Hart's assertions that Americans don’t care, raise more questions than can be answered: Is the press responsible to report on personal matters? At what point does privacy come into play? Do politicians yield the right to privacy when they choose the public eye? Why do others feel the need to be outraged by something that doesn't directly affect them? If the media feeds the people, and the people feed the media through consumption, which is the controlling force of the other?

The fact that Reitman and co-writers Jai Carson and Matt Bai (the film is based on Bai’s book) are able to pose these questions and still tell a compelling story of a talented politician who’s also a flawed human is an accomplishment indeed. “The Front Runner” may feel a bit “ripped from the headlines,” but sometimes art needs to reflect reality in order to expose unpleasant truths. This may not be revelatory, but it is an indication of how we got to where we are, for better or worse.

Did You Know?
Since retiring from the U.S. Senate in 1987, Hart returned to his law practice, earned a D. Phil in Politics from the University of Oxford in 2001, and has remained vocal regarding national security and public policy.

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