Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is Altman without Altman. The opening scene mimics The Player, albeit it less impressively than the eight-minute long take Altman achieves in his 1992 film. The camera pans back and forth across a chaotic scene of media and politics in overlap. Characters talk over each other, their relative distances from the camera dictating how much we can discern of the conversations.
Sonically, it is an impressive and immersive feat. We are drawn into the conversations we cannot hear, to the actors that are in the foreground but just out of focus. The sheer bustle of it all is emulated through staging and sound design. Reitman accomplishes a lot stylistically in this opening scene, and he will occasionally return to this level in other scenes in the film, ones which are more populated and cumbersome.
These are the scenes that give The Front Runner potential. At the crux of the film is a scandal, instigated by the philandering senator and front-runner for Democratic presidential nominee Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), but Reitman seems more motivated to put a lens on the troubling waters between politicians and journalists. This thematic content yields more powerful dramatic energy than the scandal itself.
When the film lends itself to the plot involving the scandal, there are missing perspectives. The woman involved in the scandal, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) is not a mere plot device to incite the politician’s tragic demise. But the attention on her is rather brief. We only really hear her in one scene, when she and a member of Hart’s campaign staff, Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim), have an exchange about how the scandal could impact Rice’s career.
Past this scene, the focus is on Hart and the moral grayness of his actions. Even Hart’s family are sidelined. Again, there is a scene or two where Hart’s wife (Vera Farmiga) speaks on the situation. But otherwise it is Hart’s show. Most notably, when Hart’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) is accosted by reporters, we do not even see the fallout of the event. We only hear about it.
Farmiga gives a great performance. But the movie isn’t about her. It isn’t about Hart’s family, or his mistress, or his staff. As much as they populate the film as blips to be watched, they are largely irrelevant. The film is about Hart, and it is about the media. That is the relationship worth watching, because it is the relationship that Reitman and fellow screenwriters Jay Carson and Matt Bai appear to be most concerned about.
That is why the heavily-populated scenes are the most engaging. Reitman has put the most effort into these scenes, because they are dictating the thematic through-line that relates Hart’s trials as a presidential candidate to the current state of political media. In a sense, the real protagonist of this film is Washington Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie), who confronts Hart and, with a calm sense of journalistic integrity, holds his feet to the fire.
The extravagant, bustling sequences bear this out. Perhaps the most exciting of these sequences, on the Senator’s plane, shows Parker’s initial entrance into Hart’s orbit, and it shows his power dynamic over the less-careful reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis). Later, when Hart takes center stage in a sprawling press conference, it is Parker who really takes the spotlight.
To be clear, Athie captures an intriguing concept in this character: the quiet, dutiful reporter who is not afraid to do his job even if it means hurting someone whom he understands beyond the text in a front page story. His is the most convincing, engaging performance in the film (not to diminish Jackman’s central role).
There is a familiar babble to this political drama. Even with Altman flourishes of people talking over people, of voices and music overpowering what might be considered the pertinent dialogue in a scene, the conversation all feels familiar. It is a babble, a din of white noise that has increased over time. Reitman may have the right idea in re-centering the conversation to an earlier date, but the weight of the actual story gets lost in the allegorical retelling of it.
The Front Runner: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)