If you’re someone who lived during the 80’s and was engaged with American politics to some extent, the name Gary Hart probably rings a bell. For the majority of others, however, Jason Reitman’s latest film The Front Runner might be the first real introduction to the early part of the ‘88 presidential election and the scandal that forever changed American politics. The story itself might make for one of the most timely films of the year because of its literal correlation to events occurring today, but it’s the questions the film raises are far more important to reflect upon in these current times that ultimately exceed the scandal or even Hart himself.
Based on the book All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the film alongside Reitman and Jay Carson), the film covers the events leading up to the Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) affair as well as the aftermath of the initial reporting done by the Miami Herald, which sent the campaign and the press covering it into a frenzy, and ultimately Hart’s withdrawal from the presidential race. Just like the subtitle to Bai’s book, it really was “the week politics went tabloid.” Basically, for the first time in American history, a politician’s personal life (and extramarital affairs) became of great interest to the public in a way that truly had an effect on whether or not they could win their race. Thinking of how we interact with political coverage today though, this may seem a little unbelievable, that the rise of our current political media consumption in part originated in this way, from the breaking of these long-set norms. Though, in addition to that, thinking of all the presidents and politicians before Hart who participated in these sort of extramarital activities during a time when it was both accepted and/or expected, it is also a little surprising that something like the reporting of this scandal didn’t occur much earlier.
Still, it is not hyperbole to say that the Gary Hart scandal and everything surrounding it totally altered the way in which the press now approaches reporting on politicians’ lives and personalities as well as the public’s desire to know more about these things no matter how sordid or private they may be. And the mere fact that this event in history is not often taught or discussed or even remembered is shocking, but at the same time, is telling of how even at the time, the full weight of its effects wasn’t completely realized by everyone experiencing it.
But it’s not the literal event itself that’s solely worth reflecting on, as the film emphasizes. While it is monumental in that it was practically the first in terms of this type of scandal being reported and then having consequences for the man running for office, that’s not the only focus. Rather, it is the way in which the film presents the story from various parties affected by the scandal, including campaign workers, press members, Hart’s family, and significantly Donna Rice, that makes the film feel resonate yet eye-opening today. In doing this, it really brings into question not only our own role as the public in directing the focus onto these matters but also, editors’ aim to indulge this desire from readers. In addition to this, what kind of private life a politician should or should not have and the entitlement they feel to certain coverage. It doesn’t really give the full answers to these concerns, but it raises them in a way that’s impossible to overlook because it’s something America has clearly been grappling with ever since.
The Front Runner could have been a film strictly about Hart. From start to finish it could have been a typical biopic on him, his upbringing, his family, his rise to being the ‘88 Democratic front-runner. But it doesn’t do just that. Instead, we do get a deeper sense of Hart’s character, including his best and worst qualities, and he is at the center of it all, but as mentioned earlier, we also spend time living in all of these other perspectives. The film seems to be more interested in how each of these ties in together to create the moment in history that this was. The Gary Hart scandal was never just about how one man lost his chance at the presidency, qualified though he may have been. Whether or not you mourn the loss of his potential presidency and what that win would have meant for the future is almost beside the point when watching the film because the story remains very much in the moment. It induces reflection upon its audience but the film itself does not call direct attention to such reflections.
It doesn’t paint Hart in a perfect light, nor does it do the exact opposite. He is a character you can empathize with to an extent, just as you can also empathize with the young reporter learning the ropes in a now-changing field, and Donna Rice, the woman was thrown into the spotlight for this and forced to deal with these consequences practically alone. The film really works to give her a side and a voice that is an essential part of telling this story. While many think of Gary Hart’s loss when looking back on the Gary Hart scandal, the harsh impact it had on Rice, and basically the removal of her own private life even though she wasn’t the one running for office, is something important to remember as well, and is a form of unfair treatment toward the private, female citizen that America still very much needs to work on. How Hart’s actions also forced his wife into the spotlight and affected the way in which she had to publicly present herself while simultaneously having to cope with it all internally is something the film touches on that is also a crucial aspect to consider when remembering this sort of marker in history.
The Front Runner makes the scandal and its aftermath feel inevitable, but by its very nature, at the same time, makes it impossible for audiences to be passive viewers of it. It’s a gripping tale, intelligently executed, that will make you either relive the event or wonder why you’ve never heard about it previously.