Political Film Review #576

Colorado Senator Gary Hart (played by Hugh Jackman) was an up-and-coming political star in 1984, when he threw his hat into the ring to seek the presidential nomination from the Democratic Party. Although he lost to Walter Mondale that year, he carefully planned for 1988 with a team of dedicated volunteers. Even before he announced his candidacy, he was ahead of rivals by double digits. What inspired so many supporters was that he could eloquently explain his position on issues and softly rebut criticism. Listening to a speech by Hart was a “teaching moment.” He was quite handsome and displayed physical vigor before the camera.

But Hart’s personal life proves to be less than exemplary. While he maintains an apartment in Washington, his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) remains in Colorado. They are separated though still married. Hart socializes in the Beltway and has kept a private life because he was just another senator until he becomes the front runner for president in 1988. Members of his campaign staff ask him to reveal more about his family life, but he refuses to believe that the press or the public will be interested in invading his privacy. When he is asked by reporters about his personal life, he expresses outrage at the questions. At one point, he suggests that they should follow him around if that is their obsession. A Miami Herald journalist and photographer then decide to stake out his Washington residence. One evening they view Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), an attractive young blonde woman, enter his apartment and leave several hours later. The story then mushrooms, Hart loses his cool over the matter, and he eventually drops out of the race.

The Front Runner, directed by Jason Reitman, spends an inordinate time demonstrating how campaign staff operate in an almost constant frenzy. But no explanation is provided for why Gary Hart was so insensitive to the fact that his candidacy would inevitably fail due to a sex scandal. He was doubtless aware that Senator and later President John F. Kennedy had an extramarital private life unreported by the press, which then respected the private lives of politicians. Hart must have thought that the press a quarter of a century later would not have changed. Thus, the main puzzle in the film is why Hart, such a brilliant politician, was unaware that no politician could keep his personal life private in 1988. An additional puzzle, implied by the story, is why the current president has led a salacious life, yet evangelicals do not denounce him.

The most profound political films are often the ones that inspire discussion as patrons leave a cinema as well as days afterward in social settings. The Front Runner, which points out in final credits that the Harts are now living together, is one of those subtly provocative films and merits a Political Film Society nomination for best film exposé of 2018. MH