Hugh Jackman captures 'Front Runner' Gary Hart's fatal hubris

Jason Reitman is a sterling example of quality over quantity. He has made relatively few films in his 20-year directorial career, but they include “Thank You for Smoking” (2005), “Juno” (2007) and “Up in the Air” (2009) — arguably the most uniquely entertaining and provocative pictures of their years — which is why we had good reason to anticipate “The Front Runner.”

We're not disappointed. This time, Mr. Reitman takes a less satirical approach to a more timely subject that’s very dear to our hearts these days: sex in presidential politics.

It’s the summer of 1984. Democrats thought they’d have more to celebrate by now, a decade after Richard Nixon’s ignominious resignation. But after the brief interregnum of Jimmy Carter, they’re out of the White House again. The Gipper is riding high toward a second term.

Who can take him on?


'The Front Runner'



  • Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina.
  • Rating: R for language including sexual references.

Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is champing at the bit to do so. Ambitious as hell, he emerged from the ashes of George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 campaign to become a Senator from Colorado, and now a “Kennedy-esque” rising star with a big youth following. (“He’s got the hair,” someone says.) The battle for the Democratic nomination is spirited, but ex-Vice President Walter Mondale (with the help of a humorous anti-Hart “Where’s the beef?” ad) wins it.

Just as well for Hart. Mondale and running mate Geraldine Ferraro go down to a resounding, fairly inevitable, defeat — but an instructive one.

Now, with an organization in place and plenty of prep time, Hart declines to seek another Senate term and instead devotes full attention to the 1988 presidential race. He’s a compelling speaker with a forceful, idealistic agenda and sharp ability to untangle complex political issues. Among other things, he challenges the Reagan-Bush claim of “winning the Cold War” against communism:

“You do not get credit for kicking down a door that’s already open.”

The environment is his special passion, and his team — led by crusty Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) — gets a kick out of holding press conferences high up in the Rockies, where the reporters gasp for air while Gary does his Paul Bunyon routine, hitting bull’s-eyes in a local ax-pitching competition.

If not a shoo-in, he’s certainly the front runner — dangerous for a man whose self-assurance borders on arrogance, and who relies on the belief that never shall the twain of his public and private life meet or be mixed in the media.

Soon enough, the press gets wind of Hart’s separations from diffident wife Lee (Vera Farmiga), an accomplished pianist, whom the candidate periodically woos back into domesticity. But his wandering eye gets the best of him, notably during a trip to Bimini on a yacht, “Monkey Business.” It makes for one of the film’s best scenes — entirely silent — as Gary ignores the rich guys he’s supposed to be hitting up for money, in favor of the babes in swimsuits surrounding him.

Is the senator a “womanizer”? He bristles and dismisses that when asked, adding a fateful throwaway: “Follow me around. I don't care. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored.”

That comes back to haunt him — quickly — when picked up and quoted in a May 3, 1987, story in the Miami Herald. Tipped off about an affair, the Herald assigned a team of reporters to follow Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) from Miami to Washington and stake out Hart’s D.C. townhouse, where they’re observed together. Confronted afterward in a nearby alley, discombobulated Hart says, “I'm not involved in any relationship” — she’s just a campaign aide.

Ms. Rice — delicately manipulated by Hart campaign handlers — likewise denies any sexual affair. “I just wanted to work for Sen. Hart,” she says at a press conference. Why? “I liked his positions,” is her much-mocked reply.

“It’ll blow over,” says the front runner — famous last words.

Mr. Jackman’s performance is one of his best, perfectly capturing Hart’s hubris and Trump-like media disdain. Ms. Varmiga — Oscar-nominated for “Up in the Air” — is equally fine as the deathly, deceptively calm wife, estranged and exposed back in Troublesome Gulch, Colo.

[Amazing factoid, FYI: Lee and Gary Hart are still together today.]

The most sympathetic character by far, thanks to Sara Paxton’s guileless portrayal, is poor Donna Rice, a Phi Beta Kappa who graduated magna cum laude but had trouble finding a decent job.

“When you’re a model,” she says wistfully, “people just assume you’re not smart.”

Director Reitman employs a lot of “West Wing”-style dialogue on the move, overlapping snappy patter and exaggerated media jackals in feeding frenzy, but also much authentic period detail — reporters calling in stories on pay phones, photographers hand-developing film in the soup.

Gallup polls at the time found 70 percent disapproving of covert media surveillance/reporting on a candidate's sex life and 60 percent saying marital infidelity was irrelevant to the presidency. “The Front Runner” is a fascinating kind of yardstick for how far we’ve come — or gone — since 1988.

To paraphrase an old Czech joke about the Russian takeover: “Before, we were on the edge of a precipice. Since then, we’ve taken several steps forward.”

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at

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