Come closer, children, and listen to the tale of what politics was like before TMZ. Back in those dark ages, reporters simply didn’t dig around and ask embarrassing questions of people running for office. They certainly did not bring up infidelity. I know, right?
According to the fascinating new film “The Front Runner ,” that all changed in the spring of 1987 when the first major politician to be grilled on his sex life was presidential hopeful Sen. Gary Hart, spotted cozying up to a woman who was not his wife. He went from leading the Democratic field to being a political footnote in under a month. “A lot can happen in three weeks,” the filmmakers remind us.
This year comes 31 years after Hart’s implosion and the list of politicians subsequently forced to face inquiries about their sex life has been long, including John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner and the current occupant of the White House. As it turns out, a lot of their falls from grace tell us as much about us as it does about them.
Director and co-writer Jason Reitman’s nicely understated and nuanced film sees Hart’s collapse from multiple angles — Hart himself, his campaign troops, his wife, his mistress and the newspaper reporters who seemed to surprise themselves by bringing the politician down. There is so much villainy and yet precious few villains here.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a policy wonk with his head in the clouds, flustered that anyone would be crass enough to ask who he shares his bed with. Hart, as suave throwing an ax as he is citing Tolstoy, built a wall between personal and private but now that divider was crashing down. When asked — point-blank — whether he had committed adultery, he waffles: “I guess I don’t think that a fair question.” Wait, what’s that smell? It’s Hart becoming toast.
But don’t expect journalists to come off like white knights. Reitman perfectly captures the nervousness that the scandal makes news executives feel, the sickness some feel covering it, the crushing rivalry between newspapers and the bickering about whether to take a high or a low road (Hint: there is no longer a high road.) The off-hour chumminess between reporters and the pitch-black joking of Fourth Estate members is well handled — and accurate. Not even Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post (played with knowing cynicism by Alfred Molina) is too heroic.
Where the film seems to widen its subject — and makes itself relevant in the midst of the #MeToo movement — is the way it captures the twin pain of the women Hart has hurt — his wife, played beautifully by Vera Farmiga, and his mistress, Donna Rice, portrayed with sweetness and vulnerability by Sara Paxton. Farmiga is the definition of long-suffering but gets to unleash her rage in a scene where she tells her husband to own their pain. “You carry it so I don’t have to,” she tells him.
Hart campaign workers — led by the gruff Bill Dixon (a terrific J.K. Simmons) — are left shell-shocked. One staffer, played by the excellent Molly Ephraim, is assigned to take care of Rice and the two have some fabulous scenes exploring the role of women in this man’s world and the expectations they face. It is bracingly relevant. Paxton shows Rice as both aware of her beauty but also desperate not to be seen as what she became — a late-night talk show shorthand for bimbo. There’s a scene in which she tearfully hopes her parents won’t find out about her dalliance. That was never in the cards.
To write the screenplay, Reitman leaned on Matt Bai, a journalist who wrote about Hart in his book “All The Truth Is Out.” It has a “West Wing” feel, with plenty of cross-talk and decisions being made on the fly. Reitman also seems to have had fun returning to 1987, with references to “Miami Vice,” a snippet of Expose’s “Point of No Return” and reporters struggling in a pre-internet world with payphones and dot matrix printers. Reitman’s focus is on the places and discussions behind the scenes, and so he wisely avoids lazily duplicating the famous shot aboard the boat Monkey Business that doomed Hart or showing anything steamy between Hart and Rice.
There is a moment at the end of the three weeks when Hart seems to turn a political corner, weathering the sex scandal storm, but it proves a false dawn. (“It’s gossip. It’ll blow over,” he insists.) The filmmakers don’t really explain why Hart finally pulled the plug but it leads to a wonderful final scene of just Gary Hart with his wife, still and quiet and in silhouette after so much noise. (They’re watching, naturally, Gary Hart’s speech ending his campaign).
“The Front Runner” is appropriately paced like a thriller, as everyone involved gets pulled down into the drain, helplessly. Those three weeks in 1987 may not answer all our questions about how nasty our politics and journalism has become since then, but it is clear that everyone involved was a little guilty.
“The Front Runner,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for “language, including some sexual references.” Running time: 113 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits