PLOT An extramarital affair undermines the 1988 presidential campaign of Democratic Senator Gary Hart.
CAST Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons
RATED R (language)
PLAYING At Regal Union Square 14 and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in Manhattan. Expands wider beginning Nov. 16.
BOTTOM LINE Jackman excels as a deeply flawed hero in this drama about a bygone political era.
Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner” revisits what now seems like a long-ago turning point: When a politician’s sexual life became inseparable from his public life. The year is 1987, and Democratic Sen. Gary Hart (Jackman) is leading a highflying presidential campaign -- one he is forced to abort when The Miami Herald runs a story suggesting he is having an affair.
Hart, disgusted by the low-stooping media, wants to ignore the story. “The public doesn’t care. They won’t put up with it,” he says, but his campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), feels the climate changing. “This isn’t ‘72,” he says. “It’s not even ‘82.”
Ah! If only it had been ‘98, when Bill Clinton successfully fought impeachment despite having turned the Oval Office into “The Apartment” with an intern. Better yet, if only it had been 2018, when a sitting president could shrug off accusations of sleeping with an adult film actress who was paid by his own lawyer to keep quiet. “The Front Runner,” timed for release on Election Day, wants to show that Hart was the first casualty of a newly invasive press. It may be, though, that he simply caught an ever-changing, unpredictable public at the wrong moment.
Either way, “The Front Runner” is a solidly crafted political drama with a fine cast, notably Jackman, in a rare human-scale role with room for complexity and nuance. The film’s best moment comes when Hart confronts the Miami Herald reporters who have been watching his home for strange women; as their embarrassment gives way to a giddy realization that they’ve nabbed a story, Hart’s outrage begins to crumble. Sara Paxton, as Donna Rice, Hart’s alleged mistress, conveys a pitiable naiveté; Vera Farmiga, as Hart’s dignified wife, Lee, gives the film its center of moral gravity.
Based on the book “All the Truth Is Out,” by Matt Bai — who wrote the screenplay with Reitman (“Up in the Air”) and Jay Carson (a former staffer for both Clintons) — “The Front Runner” still doesn’t feel like the full scoop on the Hart-Rice story, probably because both parties have revealed so little about it publicly. Perhaps unintentionally, the film works best as a cynical lesson: If Hart had simply abandoned his sense of shame and propriety, he might have become president yet.