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story.lead_photo.caption Presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) find his sphere of privacy rapidly contracting in Jason Reitman’s fact-based The Front Runner.

American electoral politics has an element of show business about it, and ever since Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy debated before television cameras, the quadrennial campaign for the presidency has been treated, in some quarters, as a reality soap opera.

What seemed so tragic about Gary Hart's fall from grace in 1987 is that he seemed, at least to those of us paid to pay attention to the campaign, to be different from most of the others. Despite his -- for a politician -- rugged good looks, he seemed very much a serious man, impatient with the obligatory dumb questions asked of him by those not so steeped in policy as he. Hart was a wonk who knew policy, and didn't seem as needy as some.

The Front Runner

87 Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Kaitlyn Dever, Kevin Pollak, Mamoudou Athie, Alex Karpovsky, Tommy Dewey

Director: Jason Reitman

Rating: R, for language, including some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

It was surprising when he got caught up in a sex scandal.

What Jason Reitman's The Front Runner -- a quick, colorful sketch of the Hart affair that stars a well-cast Hugh Jackman as the candidate -- does very well is convey the confusion and pettiness that always surrounds national political campaigns; the cross-talk and the cursing and the sense of being trapped together with people whom you may not like or have much in common with beyond the mission.

It opens in 1984 as the Democratic National Convention is winding down. Outside San Francisco's Moscone Center, the television reporters are primping for their stand-ups, blowing lines and starting again. For the moment, supporters of Walter Mondale, having won the right to be routed by Ronald Reagan in November, are giddy. And in a hotel across the street a cadre of operatives working for Hart (Hugh Jackman) are already beginning to plan for 1988.

It's a strong opening, a crane shot that feels Robert Altman-esque as it catches the stray snatches of conversation. And somehow Reitman has kicked us back into a more innocent age: 1984, before cellphones and the Internet, but after a movie star had won the White House.

The movie lives in moments when some marvelous and in some cases nearly anonymous actors -- some playing political operatives (J.K. Simmons, Alex Karpovsky, Molly Ephraim), others (Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor) famous journalists they don't resemble in the least -- chew over and chatter about the logistics and ethics of power-seeking. The Front Runner is at its best when it feels overheard.

That said, there is poetry in the opening shot that the rest of the movie fails to sustain as it devolves into something more familiar.

There's an audience for this film that doesn't remember Gary Hart, much less Earl K. Long (Paul Newman portrayed the roguish, stripper-loving Louisiana governor in 1989's Blaze with just the right amount of lascivious charm). Maybe they will find Hart's rather ordinary stumbling intriguing or tragic, rather than mildly disappointing or predictable.

The Front Runner isn't moralistic in the sense that it demonizes the human-after-all Hart or the Miami Herald reporters -- chief among them Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) and Pete Murphy (a wonderful Bill Burr) -- who took him up on a challenge Hart issued to The New York Times Magazine to put a tail on him to see if he was up to anything extramarital. (Whether the Herald knew about that challenge when they staked out Hart's Georgetown townhouse is still an open question.)

In any case, Hart is caught having a dalliance with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), whom he met on a cruise to Bimini arranged by Billy Broadhurst (Toby Huss), a political ally of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. Broadhurst (a behind-the-scenes power in Louisiana politics) rented, for $2,500 a day, an 83-foot-yacht called Monkey Business for what was supposed to be a day trip. (Hart, Broadhurst, and another woman ended up staying on the yacht overnight.)

Hart's political viability might have survived had not a photograph of Rice sitting on his lap with him wearing a Monkey Business crew T-shirt surfaced a few weeks later.

He could survive an extramartial affair. But not a ridiculous image. (Ask tank commander Michael Dukakis about that.)

But like its subject, the movie has something more serious than sex on its mind. What it wants us to consider is whether Hart's private life had anything to do with his fitness for office, and whether the Herald's enterprising journalism was a worthy pursuit. It raises those questions without answering them in the context of our current political environment, when partisans seem willing to forgive any and all episodes of immorality if the sinner is wearing the right color jersey.

Hart is confused and defiant when he discovers that the press has stooped to investigate his private life. And most of the country is too -- polls found that most people disapproved of the Herald's reporting. Including a lot of people at The New York Times and Washington Post.

And in the Shreveport Journal newsroom, where I worked at the time, we considered the Herald's reporting sleazy. Most of us were not innocent about the ways powerful people sometimes conducted their personal business; we just didn't think it was appropriate to report on.

This attitude continued for at least awhile -- I remember being asked about Bill Clinton's private life at journalism conventions in the late '80s and early '90s. I remember telling people there was a lot of smoke that we weren't interested in investigating because it seemed immaterial to his job performance. Maybe we were wrong about that, because it now seems apparent that character matters at least as much as a candidate's take on the capital gains tax; in retrospect, the Herald's position is more than defensible.

Jackman is well-cast as the stoic, sometimes huffy Hart, and we might have spent more time with his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) than the movie allows, but The Front Runner seems reluctant to speculate too much on the state of the marriage, allowing at the end that the couple, like the country, is still together.

MovieStyle on 11/23/2018

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