Monday, January 28, 2019

The Front Runner: Satire and Beyond

Hugh Jackman (centre) in The F.ront Runner.

Movie-wise, 2018 culminated in the lamest Christmas season in years; aside from Mary Poppins Returns, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, three of the six segments in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Peter Jackson’s extraordinary World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, I didn’t see a single film I could get behind. And the dim slate of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture confirm the widespread disgruntlement about the caliber of last year’s releases. Actually, it wasn’t quite as terrible a year for movies as the list of nominees indicates. It’s just that in 2018, even more radically than in most years, the majority of the interesting films were sidelined – they opened only briefly, and only in a few cities, and didn’t draw the attention they deserved. (Ironically, the other cadre of movies worth checking out resided at the other end of the spectrum: the franchise movies that saturated the cineplexes over the summer, most of which were immensely enjoyable.) This was the year of Blaze, Hearts Beat Loud, The Sisters BrothersPaddington 2, Leave No Trace, Juliet, Naked, Christopher Robin, The Death of Stalin, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Journey’s End. And of The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s movie about Gary Hart’s doomed bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 1988, which a friend helpfully steered me to a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazing that a movie as good as this one, by a respected director and with a major star (Hugh Jackman), released at the beginning of prestige-movie season (it came out Thanksgiving week), could have slipped by virtually unnoticed.

Reitman has been making features for just under a decade and a half, and two of his early pictures, Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, made it clear that he’s drawn to satirical visions of America. But in the first he hadn’t yet developed the skill to pull off the material, and the second had disastrous problems with tone and its screenplay didn’t come close to developing its best ideas about the callousness of the contemporary American workplace. (Both The Company Men, with its network-TV depiction of the corporate world in the face of a fraught economy, and the Life Magazine sequences in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were more convincing and more honestly affecting.) But this time, taking on the topic of political celebrity in The Front Runner, he gets it right. The model, for both Reitman’s direction and the first-rate script (by Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Reitman, based on Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out), is Robert Altman’s collaboration with Garry Trudeau, the HBO miniseries Tanner ’88, which was made during the run-up to the 1988 Democratic Convention. Its hero, Jack Tanner (played by Altman perennial Michael Murphy), is a congressman with an impeccable liberal history whose earnestness, naiveté, and resistance to being turned into a commodity pose continual challenges for his team – only one of whom (Pamela Reed) is a seasoned campaigner. Altman and Trudeau worked semi-improvisationally, dotting the series with appearances by real-life Democrats (including Gary Hart). The overlapping, boomeranging dialogue, is trademark Altman; the short scenes, with their off-the-beam punch lines, link the project to Trudeau’s Doonesbury strips; the unusual tone – which runs the gamut from bemused to flabbergasted – is like Altman and Trudeau. The humor derives mostly from the way the characters respond to circumstances over which they have no control; they always seem to be on the fly and striving breathlessly to catch up. Some of this quality carried over to Aaron Sorkin’s work on The West Wing, but (good as that show was) Sorkin, unlike Altman, doesn’t like surprises, so the loose, spontaneous element was carefully crafted.

The first half of The Front Runner contains all the characteristics of Tanner except for the guest-star political-celebrity turns – though Reitman has cast it very cannily, with talented character actors you may have seen around but not in large roles, and whose names you’re not likely to recognize. The exceptions are Jackman, who plays Hart, Vera Farmiga as his wife Lee, J.K. Simmons as his campaign manager, Bill Dixon, and – in a small role – Alfred Molina, the latest fine actor to play Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. The film is mostly very funny in the first hour. But the comedy about sophisticated veterans like Dixon and relative youngsters who have learned the game fast (like Kevin Sweeney, played by Chris Coy, and Irene Kelly, played by Molly Ephraim) trying to make the most out of Hart’s appeal – his great looks, his sincerity- while downplaying his intellectual prowess is balanced by Hugh Jackman’s still-waters-running-deep straight-arrow presence. And by the doggedness of the young Post journalist AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie) who, probing Gary’s sexual ethics and the honesty that he presents as his defining trait, has the nerve to ask the candidate about his marriage. (The writers have substituted AJ for the real-life Post writer Lois Romano, who brought up the rumor of his womanizing in an interview.) Gary is so offended by his assumption that he might have something to hide that he challenges him to follow him around and see exactly how he spends his time. Part of his over-the-top reaction seems to be his expectation that AJ should recognize that they’re cut from the same cloth – that he thinks he sees a supporter, like the old-school reporter Kevin O’Connor played so memorably in Tanner ’88, rather than just a prying, line-crosser selling dirty copy like snake oil. And then someone else does just what Hart challenged Parker to do: operating on a tip that Hart is having an affair, a Miami Herald staffer and a photographer camp out in the bushes outside his Florida townhouse and see a young campaign aide, Donna Rice, who they assume has been spending the weekend with him.

Reitman keeps more than one tone going in these pivotal scenes, just as he preserves Hart’s complexity – and, I would say, a certain mystery about him. (Jackman does the best work of his career here.) It’s when Donna enters the movie not just as a fact but as a character that the film moves permanently out of its comic phrase. Played with wistful delicacy by Sara Paxton, she’s an idealistic young woman who gets caught up in a romance with Hart because she idolizes him and he listens to her; he treats her opinions respectfully. We don’t ever see them in conversation, so we can’t know how much of this is Donna’s hopeful perception; the movie is very careful not to let us see any evidence that Gary is a player, so we just don’t know how to read his attitude toward her. (That’s partly what I mean when I say it preserves his mystery.) Especially in the current climate, it would be easy to reduce him to a callous bastard who uses and then disposes of this hapless young woman, but The Front Runner isn’t reductive. What it does, however, is to give Donna’s situation the weight that both the press and the public denied it at the time. Dixon gives Irene the unenviable job of keeping Donna occupied long enough for the Hart team to get (they hope) ahead of the press before they swoop down on her. Donna prides herself on her education and her intelligence; after all, she fell for a famous politician who made her feel smart. Now she’s terrified that she’ll be seen as a bimbo – which is, of course, precisely what happened to Donna Rice. Irene gives Donna the sympathetic ear she’s desperate for and then sends her off, unprepared, to be devoured by hungry reporters – and we can see exactly how she feels about the low-down mission she’s been handed as she watches Donna disappear down an escalator, with no idea of what she’s going to face at the bottom.

The movie is impeccably acted; even Vera Farmiga, whose approach to acting is usually to score points, gets fully in character as Lee Hart, and her scenes with Jackman after he comes clean to her have a bruised brittleness. I would call The Front Runner a major accomplishment, and in a genre that Hollywood almost always botches. Engaging as it is in bits and pieces, a political comedy like Vice, which lacks both a protagonist and a leading actor who can give it the motor it needs to propel it forward, seems paltry next to it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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