SALT LAKE CITY — (KUTV) Somewhere it’s May 1, 1987, and Donna Rice is boarding a flight from Miami to Washington D.C. She’ll spend the next two nights with former Senator Gary Hart, the front runner for the Democratic candidate for president. May 8, 1987, Hart drops out of the presidential race.
Hart was already dodging accusations that he was a womanizer and with his wife at home in Colorado, news reports of Rice’s visit set off a firestorm of investigative reporting. Hart and Rice, a former cheerleader and Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of South Carolina, insist to this day that nothing nefarious happened.
Nonetheless, Republican George H. W. Bush would easily win the 1988 presidential election over Democrat Michael Dukakis. Dukakis managed to win only 111 electoral votes. Bush won 426.
I can’t tell you that if Hart had stayed in the race that he would have defeated Bush, but there is little doubt that he would have made it a more competitive.
In May of 1987 I was ten years old. I remember the newscasts, not really understanding them. So, until I sat down with Jason Reitman's (you know, the guy who made “Up in the Air,” “Juno” and is directing the next Ghostbusters film) "The Front Runner" this past week, I forgot about the Hart scandal altogether.
Based on Matt Bai’s “All the Truth is Out,” “The Front Runner” stars Hugh Jackman as Hart. Hart was known for his charisma, a quality that Jackman certainly has. It also doesn’t hurt that Jackman is a talented actor and comes with an image that ensures that audiences are predisposed to like him and his characters by extension. This is incredibly important, particularly when many members of the audience are aware of where the story is going.
I liked Jackman’s performance and the film in general, but I can’t help but wonder if the film was focused on the wrong character. We know what a defiant man charged with sexual misconduct looks like. We know that the first step is to attack the credibility of the report, those making the report and the organization they work for. When plausible denial is no longer an option, the accused look to defuse the situation by suggesting that what a person does isn’t nearly as important as the ideology they promote. Then they’ll attempt to normalize their behavior. We’ve been there.
The best scenes in “The Front Runner” are those without Jackman. Not because of Jackman, but because of Hart's inability to accept responsibility for his actions.
The real story is found in campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) realizing his and his team’s efforts to sell Hart were never appreciated. It’s in Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), being dragged back into a spotlight she wants nothing to do with. It’s Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), Hart’s daughter, realizing that the man she looked up doesn’t really exist.
And yet, most of all, the film’s greatest scenes involve Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim), a member of Hart’s staff who is assigned to befriend Rice in hopes of mitigating the damages. The “relationship” that develops between these two women is devastating. This is the story we need to see more of.
“The Front Runner” was ignored at the box office and wasn't able to build any momentum going into award season. A shame, but I suppose it is understandable considering how our lives have become saturated with scandal and politics. Still, learning from our history is important and there are ample lessons to be found in “The Front Runner.”
“The Front Runner” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD.