The Front Runner
More than 30 years ago, the Democratic Party had a show horse, a 41-year-old senator, both serious and studly, to challenge the post-Reagan Republicans. Gary Hart of Colorado was tested in the political fires of the 1972 race as the campaign manager of George McGovern, then, at 39, became a promising senator steeped in national security and environmental affairs. After a failed presidential bid in 1984, he became his party’s clear front runner by May 1987, only to have his promise crushed by a scandal concerning an alleged affair with a young woman. That mostly forgotten episode about our electoral politics has now been revisited by writer/director Jason Reitman in “The Front Runner,” a film that carries resonance for our own current frenzied politics (The film is rated “R” and runs 113 mins.).
After a brief prelude, “The Front Runner” plunges us into the febrile atmosphere of the 1987 campaign, with Hart, all great hair and silver-tongued delivery, appearing to have the Democratic Party’s nomination. His ascension, however, is thwarted when journalists of the Miami Herald find that he may have consorted with a young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), first aboard a yacht, “Monkey Business,” then at his townhouse on Capitol Hill, while his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) remained at the family home in Colorado. The outraged Hart—who confronts journalists stalking him in DC—insists there is nothing in the alleged “affair” and denounces them for invasion of privacy. The “sex scandal” becomes a national obsession, and the senator tries to defend himself against an ever-more voracious media. But he cannot and ultimately withdraws from the race. The private has become the political.
The film aims to show this tipping point in American politics when a politician’s private life became fair game, when “character” became a defining element of a candidacy, and when an expanding mass media could overwhelm a politician’s life. Reitman, and his co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson, trace this sea-change by concentrating less on the individual Hart and instead focusing judiciously on his campaign itself and its cast of characters.
Hugh Jackman’s performance, in fact, is a rather opaque one, representing the candidate at a distance; earnest and attractive, yes, but unknowable to his public. The grit of his campaign comes in the sundry staffers he has around him, players like campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), assistant Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) and eager staffers like Billy Shore (Mark O’Brien) and Joe Trippi (Oliver Cooper), his true believers who dream of a political breakthrough with their paragon boss.
The human side of this story comes from Hart’s family, Lee and his daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). The unwitting “villains” of the story are the media, both members of The Miami Herald, led by Bob Martindale (Kevin Pollak), and The Washington Post, where reporter A.L. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), becomes, almost accidentally, his journalistic nemesis. All the above performers, and dozens of others, combine to produce in convincing detail a believable campaign story, an ensemble that clicks.
There are several standouts. Worthy of special mention is Farmiga as a loyal yet skeptical critic of her husband who confronts the wounded Hart in a terrific showdown scene. Also there is Simmons as the hard-bitten Dixon, profane but passionate, Paxon as the sincere yet naïve Rice, and Ephraim as the steadfast back-up to her boss. Paxon and Ephraim, in fact, have one of the best takes in the movie. Just after Rice’s cover has been blown to the media, the two women sit in a bar as Donna nervously tells of her relationship with the senator and how desperately she wants a role in the campaign, while Irene, acting as Rice’s minder, patiently, humanely hears her out while knowing full well that all Donna’s dreams will be crushed. It is an exquisite two-fer in a film filled with smart scenes.
The movies love an odd couple; dozens, if not scores, of films have explored the opening friction and the eventual connection between two disparate characters. The latest, and it is a most satisfying one, is “Green Book,” a road movie showing how, in 1962, a lug from Queens and a Jamaican jazz pianist roamed the American South in a weeks-long concert tour. Viggo Mortensen as the tough guy and Mahershala Ali as the pianist carry off their contrasting roles with, respectively, raw charm and taut grace (the film, recently released, runs 130 mins. and is rated PG-13).
The set-up is simple. A nightclub bouncer, Frank Vallelonga (Mortenson)—better known as “Tony Lip”–needs a job and hooks up, somewhat implausibly (although this is based on a true story), as a chauffeur for an erudite pianist, the real composer and performer Don Shirley. Their first encounter is a job interview at Carnegie Hall, where Dr. Shirley (Ali) resides, nicely presenting the gulf between the two men. Shirley’s tour will take him and his high-toned jazz trio for their first bookings in the South, still segregated enough that Tony must bring along the “Green Book,” a cautionary listing compiled for African-American travelers of where they will be welcome in the South.
The film then becomes a road picture that takes us through the vagaries of their travels, where they encounter casual racism, blatant bigotry, appreciative audiences, and themselves. They fence, they bicker, they bond. They ultimately contribute to each other. Tony loosens Dr. Shirley up and protects him bodily in tense stand-offs and during breakdowns, while the latter introduces the former to artistic genius then also helps Tony to write touching letters to his wife Dolores (a lovely Linda Cardenelli). There is a delicate, and sweet, ending.
Is it predictable? Yes. Is it sentimental? Yes. Is it corny? Decidedly no–because the two leads bring dimension, sympathy, and novelty to their roles. And those roles are intriguing in that they nicely flip some stereotypes of the period. Mortenson, as an goombah with a seventh grade education and insensitive to African-Americans, comes to appreciate and admire the skills and taste of a talented black man, enough so as to become genuinely protective of him. Ali, as an über-competent musician, comes to appreciate fried chicken and Little Richard through his animated driver, enough so as to fully trust him. Their vastly different worlds at first collide and then, with time, blend, as we would hope more cross-racial relationships might.
Peter Farrelly, best known for his goofy comedies (“Dumb and Dumber,” etc.), directs “Green Book” and co-wrote its screenplay, along with Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga—Tony’s son and himself an actor. Here Farrelly proves he can also do drama, getting past the goofy to the grave and the gracious while effectively creating a decent simulacrum of the early Sixties South. This is not only a “feel-good” movie, but a feel right one.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.