The 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival is underway and we’re sending writers out to enjoy it. Stay tuned in the coming weeks, as they share their thoughts about this year’s films.
The Front Runner
Directed by: Jason Reitman
The thirty-seventh annual Vancouver International Film Festival wound down at The Centre’s lavish theatre Friday night, as a thronging crowd of movie-buffs joined industry representatives and distinguished guests for the Closing Gala screening of Canadian director Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner. Set in the opening months of the 1988 presidential primaries, the film captures the rapid political demise of Colorado congressman and one-time Democratic presidential hopeful, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), in the wake of America’s first nationally-televised sex scandal.
The audience is taken back in time to when politicians grappled each other’s policies rather than threatening to ‘lock up’ their opponents.
As a period drama, The Front Runner showcases the human fragility of a politician whose private life perhaps belies his public persona. After an auspicious start to his self-consciously noble “campaign of ideas,” Hart is caught cheating on his wife “Lee” (Vera Farmiga) by Miami Herald reporters whose ‘gotcha’ journalism set the tone for how prospective presidents have since been covered by the established press. Three weeks later, a stunned Hart cannot come to grips with the nation’s bizarre fascination with his perceived moral shortcomings and, unable to navigate the morally confusing hedge-maze that has irrupted at the intersection of sex, power, and individual privacy, he abandons his presidential ambitions before the gathering media frenzy can ensnare his family.
As a commentary on the state of American politics today, Reitman takes artistic license to highlight the bitter irony that Hart’s indiscretions pale in comparison to the staggering amorality Americans suffer in their current president. The audience is taken back in time to when politicians grappled each other’s policies rather than threatening to ‘lock up’ their opponents in a scene where Hart shakes hands with his Democratic rival, Walter Mondale, as they wrap up a collegial debate at Georgetown University. Where Hart is turfed out of politics in 1988 for having violated the sanctity of marriage, the audience shifts uneasily in their seats, knowing that thirty years later the same discerning electorate somehow forgave a president who candidly bragged about violating women. Next, as a jarring reminder that some of the reporters who hounded Hart in 1988 would go on to abuse women themselves, Reitman has a young Bill O’Reilly rattle one of the congressman’s staffers at a press scrum outside the Harts’ Rocky Mountain home. Long before a host of sexual harassment lawsuits upset his career as a conservative pundit at Fox News, the onscreen O’Reilly is working for the network tabloid, “A Current Affair.”
But where the film successfully challenges the media’s hazily democratic (small ‘d’) pretension to inform us about politicians’ private lives, Reitman’s lazy development of the film’s female characters—including and especially Hart’s young mistress, Donna Rice—occasionally disappoints audience expectations in the #MeToo era. Witness a sobbing Rice (Sara Paxton) used as comic relief after she is humiliated by male paparazzi thrusting her tryst with the married Hart into the public eye. The viewer is then tempted to laugh as Rice tells the camera she still wants to serve Hart’s campaign because she “like[s] his positions.” Sexual innuendo aside, Hart abused his position as a political celebrity to groom young, vulnerable women as sexual partners—and with such aplomb he was genuinely shocked when the Herald exposed his affair. If Reitman’s point was to focus voters’ attention on what politicians do in office rather than in the bedroom, he neglected the obvious counterpoint that sex imposes moral responsibility when there’s an imbalance of power between the sheets.
Still, the film is not a passion play with Gary Hart as Reagan-era Jesus. And Reitman lands his point that American democracy stumbled into the abyss while the voting public obsessed over conventional family values.
The Front Runner comes to American screens as the nation faces midterm elections on November 6th.