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November 10, 2018

Denver Film Festival - The Front Runner


Jason Reitman - 2018
Columbia Pictures

Colorado Senator Gary Hart gets described here as a man with great ideas, but aloof when it comes to his more personal side. And The Front Runner can be described as being like Hart. Reitman's film is very timely regarding the issue of men in power, their relationships with women, and the often flexible relationships politicians have with the media concerning the boundaries, if any, of their personal lives. In this case, good intentions do not make for a good movie.

For those unfamiliar with the events, the Democratic senator appeared to be a shoo-in to run against George Bush in 1988. Taking a breather from campaigning and separated from his wife, Hart spent time in Miami, Florida where he took up an invitation to join a group traveling by yacht to Bimini. Among the other passengers was a blonde young woman, Donna Rice. The yacht was called "Monkey Business". Hart kept in contact with Rice while back on the campaign trail, and they got together at Hart's Washington D.C. townhouse. Rumors led to Miami Herald reporters watching the front door of the townhouse, concluding Hart was having an affair. Both Hart and Rice denied anything improper about their relationship, but the damage had been done. I even remember seeing the photograph published later with Hart and Rice on "Monkey Business". If you think that the name of the yacht is one of life's little jokes, keep in mind that Gary Hart's Colorado home was in a place called Troublesome Gulch.

Reitman begins with a very complicated traveling shot of news reporters gathered outside Hart's hotel room in 1984, when his first attempted run ended with him conceding to Walter Mondale. The camera weaves in, out and around, picking up snippets of conversation. Between that extended shot and the first couple of scenes, Reitman seems to be attempting to mimic Robert Altman. And the problem with The Front Runner is that Reitman isn't Robert Altman in that he is unable to make a film with a large cast of characters. With something like Nashville, Altman was able to introduce an oversized cast of characters, provide enough information to let the viewer know who each of them were, and show how most of them were connected to each other. The Front Runner is filmed in such as way as to assume the viewers know who Gary Hart is debating in an early scene, or know what role Irene Kelly had as part of Hart's campaign team.

What should have been a compelling story gets lost in a morass of dialogue and uninteresting characters. It could be that Reitman is just better at making more intimate stories, usually in conjunction with screenwriter Diablo Cody. I can see why Reitman would be interested here, his films are about people who find themselves in relatable situations that are over their heads. But films like Juno and Tully are confined to a handful of characters, usually a family, and are structured to allow the viewer to know and emphasize with a teen girl who discovers she's pregnant, or an overworked, exhausted mother. With The Front Runner, Alfred Molina plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, but unlike Jason Robards in All the President's Men or Tom Hanks as Bradlee in The Post, I can't even remember a single moment of Molina's appearance. It's also telling that the sometimes wry humor of Reitman's past work is missing here - the biggest laughs come from Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" monologue.

Seventy years ago, a much better film came out about a presidential candidate involved in an extramarital affair with a younger woman, and the machinations of political strategists. That film is State of the Union, directed by Frank Capra. Check it out.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 10, 2018 08:30 AM