Movie Review: “The Front Runner” aims high, until he falls

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“The Front Runner” is a solid if not quite sensational thriller with villains around every corner, including one the director thinks is the hero.

There’s the press corps — particularly Miami Herald reporters Tom Fiedler and Pete Murphy (Steve Zissis and Bill Burr) — which went sniffing around where presidential candidate Gary Hart dared them to go.

You’ve got this drawling, drinking womanizing enabler Billy Broadhurst (Toby Huss) and the woman “BB” parked on Hart’s radar, attention hound, “model” and pharmaceutical rep Donna Rice (Sara Paxton).

Hart’s idealistic staff, epitomized by campaign boss Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) were professionals, through and through — and professional at looking the other way while their candidate took little “breaks” at the arm of his enabler.

But director Jason Reitman’s film doesn’t seem to see Hart himself (Hugh Jackman, tetchy, buttoned-down and self-righteous) as the only real architect of his downfall.

That hurts a film in which Reitman wastes a lot of flash — long tracking shots, overlapping Altmanesque crosstalk, the feeding frenzy of a media scrum — making a pertinent and simple point, that this was when the country lost its ability to decide what was “important” in picking a president. His other point — that we missed the chance to have a smart, forward-thinking progressive who saw the big picture better than anybody of his generation in the White House — is not far from the surface, either.

Not that “Front Runner” really succeeds in making those points. You’d think, with a reality TV famous, foul-mouthed, womanizing liar in the White House, Reitman would have a slam-dunk on his hands. But all I kept thinking about was the cult of personality that has been there ever since we started electing presidents, how what the public let happen with Hart they quickly forgave with Clinton and even Trump.

None of which really announces “Here’s how we got where we are.”

But even with its muddled messages and misplaced hero worship, “The Front Runner” is still a thoroughly enjoyable deep dive into the American political process and a piece of ancient history — 1987 — that the kids could learn from.

Jackman’s Hart is a marvelous contradiction, grousing about “what’s important,” dismissive of posing for the cover of “People” magazine, suffering through make-up — and yet staging his 1987 campaign inauguration announcement in Colorado’s Red Rocks, a striking, startling and comically impractical setting that gives the lie to the man not being aware of optics.

I met Hart once, interviewing him for public radio after a mid-80s speech in Charlotte, N.C. All I remember was the flounced hair and cowboy boots. He was about as much a cowboy as Reagan. And he was projecting an image — “The West.”

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So we’ve got this self-serious politician who allows just enough humor into his presence to seem human, an “Atari Democrat,” one of the Young Turks thinking ahead to when every school-child would need a computer, every dollar saved from a “peace dividend” by ending the arms race with the collapsing Soviet Union could be spent building for America’s future.

And he’s a guy who jealously guards his free time and his privacy, who treats any suggestion he “get personal” in speeches or interview with “That’s IRRELEVANT.”

Which, truthfully, it is. Until it isn’t.

Because Gary Hart liked his gin and tonics, liked hanging out with “BB,” and loved himself a little “Monkey Business.”

“Front Runner” has a prologue in 1984, as Hart was ending his failed run for the Democratic nomination, but quickly zeroes in on the days leading up to his announcing for the presidency three years later, and the three weeks it took for him to lose it all.

Vera Farmiga plays Lee Hart, loyal wife also known — to campaign insiders and DC reporters — for “looking the other way.” Farmiga gives a stoic, compact performance with few fireworks. But we want fireworks.

There’s something of “Shoot the Messenger” in the way Reitman and his fellow screenwriters (one, New York Times writer Matt Bai, wrote the book this is based on) treat the press here.

The Miami Herald reporters and their editor (Kevin Pollack) get their first tips from Donna Rice herself, and their amateurish stakeout of Hart’s DC townhouse earns them waves of pushback from other newspapers, but especially TV.

Ted Koppel, seen as he actually carried on a confrontational interrogation with the Herald’s Fielder, comes off as foolishly second-guessing a story he maybe didn’t want to believe.

A fictional Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie of “Patti Cake$), based on E.J. Dionne, is shown as young, naive and reluctant to pursue this “tabloid” story that Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) reluctantly accepts as “news.” But there it is, at the bottom of his list of questions, “rumors” — and young A.J. Parker asks it. Smart play. Always save the question that will get a hangup or an angry storming-out last.

I like the way Hart and his team furiously attack the press, throwing words like “dignity” and “This is beneath you” at one and all. As we’ve seen candidates do, until recently. Because now they have to expect it.

That’s one thesis “The Front Runner” has dead to rights. It was no great leap from the secretive, reckless “gambler” Hart — who dared the Post to “put a tail on me. You’ll be very bored.” — to “Boxers or briefs?” to — “Grab’em by the p—y!”

Everything is fair game in today’s media environment. Reitman revels in these scenes — feeding frenzies to testy, public confrontations — sometimes to the exclusion of getting under Hart’s skin (Why so recklessly arrogant?) or his wife’s.

J.K. Simmons gives us a touch of Dixon’s disillusionment, Molly Ephraim plays a campaign aide reduced to Donna Rice’s “handler,” sympathizing with this hapless “That’s how you see me…bimbo…you think I’m stupid” attention whore who undid so many and so much.

Of course there are two “Front Runners” here. One of them is Reitman, son of Hollywood royalty, a talented director who peaked with “Up in the Air,” tried to steal screenwriting credit and hasn’t made a movie remotely as smart and thoughtful since.

People never really forgave Gary Hart, and Reitman hasn’t caught a break from critics since that screenwriting kerfuffle. He’s got a hint of Hart’s tetchiness about him. Never ask him how much his career owes to his “magic surname.” I did, and set him off. Of course, like “A.J. Parker” I had the good sense to ask that question last.

Here, he’s made a good (not great) movie that’s not captured the interest of audiences or reviewers. Sure, he didn’t realize his “hero” was just one of its villains. And “The Front Runner” may not achieve its overreaching ambitions. But that’s appropriate, too. Neither did Gary Hart.

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MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Molly Ephraim, Alfred Molina, Kevin Pollack.

Credits: Directed by Jason Reitman, script by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Jason Reitman . A Sony/Columbia release.

Running time: 1:53

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