Jason Reitman’s “The Frontrunner” is well made, but lacks punch and personality
Jason Reitman’s latest film tells the true story of Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), who was embroiled in a controversy regarding an extramarital affair while running for the Presidency in 1988. The film covers the three weeks from when the information reaches the press, to when he eventually drops out of the race. “The Frontrunner” however never has anything to say, and just lets the story unfold without ever divulging anything interesting.
The film is undeniably topical, and asks the question as to what can be considered public or private, and what the press should or shouldn’t report. It also touches on the ever-shifting tides of public opinion, where once they wouldn’t care about extramarital affairs—Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy cited as examples in the film—but now are considered important information in questioning the moral character of a person running for office. The script by Reitman and Jay Carson bangs the audience over the head with heavy-handed dialogue about these questions, without ever answering it themselves.
The film needlessly tries to toe a line between the two sides of the question, and ends up drawing blanks by the end. Jackman plays Gary Hart well as a man who isn’t comfortable being in the limelight, while also being stubborn and dismissive. Beyond that, however, the character is very one-dimensional. We never really know what he’s thinking or feeling, nor do we know what kind of man Gary Hart really is. Vera Farmiga, who plays wife Lee Hart, does a great job in the film but is underused. The film has a problem of briskly moving the events forward without ever considering the characters at play, and that muffles the beating heart of the film.
The film plays with a major ensemble of actors like J.K. Simmons, Bill Burr, Alfred Molina, and Mike Judge, among others. All do a great job in their roles as journalists and campaign staffers, and provide a surprising amount of levity to the film. “The Frontrunner” evokes a 70s/80s style of filmmaking with long zooms, shifting camera-work, and overlapping audio, which helps capture the setting at that time.
Reitman does a good job of staging characters in the scene and having them banter. It seems however that Reitman was more interested in capturing the setting and old-school filmmaking sensibilities than the actual story itself. The classic sensibilities are also present in Rob Simonsen’s score, which was good, if a little bombastic and distracting at times.
In the end, “The Frontrunner” did seem like the projected winner, but other than the great actors, premise, and visual prowess, it didn’t have much to offer beyond that.
The Frontrunner starts its nationwide campaign November 21.
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