The Front Runner is custom made for an election year awards campaign. Featuring a salacious campaign scandal, a group of relentless journalists desperate to uncover the truth, and a veteran actor looking to pivot his superhero image, the film is placed on the back of director Jason Reitman, who’s work has ranged from transcendent (Up In The Air, Juno) to terrible (Labor Day, Men Women and Children). The elevator pitch is an unlit firecracker, waiting to explode onto the screen and get viewers, who recently (hopefully) voted, talking. The pedigree involved makes it all the more disappointing that the final picture is dead on arrival. While not without its strong moments, it’s a tonally and thematically confused mess.
Hugh Jackman plays Gary Hart, a senator with his eye on the presidency who becomes embattled by both the press and his constituents when details of his shady private life emerge. As journalists become hungrier for answers and his campaign sinks further into the mud, Hart starts to emotionally unravel. We see the reflection of his humiliating failure through his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) campaign manager Bill (J.K. Simmons) and mistress Donna (Sara Paxton).
In the hands of a more focused storyteller The Front Runner could’ve made for a terrific mirror to our current climate. Unfortunately, Reitman and his two co-writers have no idea what part of the story they want to zero in on. Instead, we’re given half baked pieces of the crumbling campaign, journalistic investigation, Gary’s home life and the horrors that face his mistress. They all feel underdeveloped, especially since none of the characters are particularly worth rooting for. One could say that Riteman’s point is to paint every side of a political scandal as either predators or fleas but since the personalities here are so thin, there’s no further dimensions to be uncovered.
Jackman is clearly giving this character his all, but he’s woefully miscast and delivers one of his weaker performances. We’re constantly told how inspiring and charismatic this man is, but we never see that side of him. A more fitting actor would’ve made both sides of Gary equally convincing and because Jackman does not deliver, Hart’s character arc falls flat. Farmiga is criminally underutilized, only getting one scene to go toe to toe with her husband. She spends most of the film on the sidelines, reacting to being betrayed and embarrassed without showing much agency of her own. It’s a role beneath an actress of her immense talent. J.K. Simmons and Bill Burr are a lot of fun in their respective hard nosed roles but both evaporate from the narrative before their characters can come into their own.
Fortunately, the screenplay does occasionally deliver the goods and generally keeps things moving along at a good clip. There’s some witty dialogue, especially in the first half, which does a fine job of establishing dynamics in the campaign offices, news rooms and households we are dealing with. It’s certainly nothing on the level of Reitman’s regular writing partner Diablo Cody, who’s fantastic work on his previous film, Tully gave every scene a layer of nuance and dimension, but it’s workable. Perhaps he should’ve had her do a pass on this. At least then the women characters just might’ve gotten to do something more besides sadly stare out windows and cry.
The film isn’t terrible, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re being robbed of an important story for this moment. Sure, we get to hear it told, but it’s delivered in such a haphazard manner that it loses all impact. It tries to get by on merely being about important issues without taking a clear stand or even a coherent narrative perspective. If this was truly intended to be an awards contender, then it’s time for the concession speech.