In 1987, the presidential sweepstakes had already begun heating up as Ronald Reagan prepared to leave after his second term. George H. W. Bush would run as the continuity candidate, while Democrats looked for outsiders to match Reagan’s charisma. No candidate seemed better positioned to seize the moment than Colorado Senator Gary Hart, a runner-up in 1984. At 50, Hart projected relative youth, vigor, and enthusiasm — and may have set the mold for Bill Clinton’s rise four years later. Unfortunately for Hart, he also foreshadowed Clinton’s darker side with a little Monkey Business of his own, which ended his presidential aspirations as the media began pressing more sharply on personal matters in politics.

The Front Runner gives a fair look at the three weeks that changed the relationship between American politicians and reporters forever. Jason Reitman keeps the pace up, although at times he falls in love with the documentary approach so much that entire scenes consist of cross-talk and mumbling. (Either that or he’s channeling Robert Altman’s most annoying directorial tic.) That contributes to a slow start, but once the action starts, the tension ramps up and engages the audience fully. Even though most of the audience will recall all of these events as they come up on the screen, Reitman’s film will keep you on the edge of your seat, mainly for its insight into the characters — and especially Hart’s complicated role at the center of the controversy.

Hugh Jackman excels as Hart, who wants to run a campaign of ideas rather than personalities, but whose judgment turns out to be the biggest issue of his candidacy. JK Simmons makes what could have been a two-dimensional role as Hart’s campaign manager as Bill Dixon into an intriguing, personable, and sympathetic Greek chorus. Oliver Cooper portrays a young, goofy proto-genius Joe Trippi engagingly as a man stuck between history and people he genuinely admires, with little idea as to how to extricate them from Hart’s self-inflicted disaster. Vera Farmiga delivers a steely performance as Lee Hart, getting away from the campaign-wife stereotype and showing the real pain behind the headlines. If Simmons is the Greek chorus, Farmiga is the voice of judgment on a tragic hero, but also a lifelong companion resolved to face that judgment with him.

The film divides its condemnation between the candidate and the media, albeit unequally. It doesn’t rest much judgment on Donna Rice (Sarah Paxton), whom the film goes out of its way to portray as an intelligent if naive young woman, one whom the Hart campaign betrays. In several scenes, media figures debate whether the Miami Herald violated standards in following Rice to Hart’s townhouse in DC, and where the line between private behavior and public responsibility lies. In one scene, Dixon relates a warning that Warren Beatty gave Hart earlier that the cameras are “everywhere,” but that Hart didn’t think that politics and Hollywood were the same.

And this is where The Front Runner falls short. It wants to scold Hart for his behavior and scold the media much more for theirs, the latter of which are fair — to a point. However, the film never discusses why the coverage of politicians became more celebrity-oriented: politicians began turning themselves into celebrities in order to gain emotional traction with voters. That may have started with John F, Kennedy, the Camelot myth, and his embrace of the Hollywood Rat Pack, but it only picked up speed later on. Ronald Reagan came out of Hollywood. Hart himself embraced the kind of hipness that comes from socializing with Beatty and Jack Nicholson showcased at the time.

He wasn’t the first candidate to do so, nor by any means the last, but Hart indulged that celebrity impulse. He wasn’t hanging around with Beatty and Nicholson to develop land-use policies in the interior West. The idea of getting a young, energetic, and charismatic candidate — the impulse that fueled the interest in Hart as a presidential candidate, and later Clinton too — is based on getting a shortcut to victory through pop-culture celebrity. With that celebrity comes celebrity media coverage, including the People Magazine fluff that The Front Runner shows Hart disparaging.

Lastly, because the film doesn’t address this issue, this never lands at the feet of the voters who respond to the celebritization of politics, or more accurately incentivize it. There’s a reason why Hart and Clinton got attention and policy wonks like Paul Simon and Paul Tsongas failed to resonate in two successive Democratic presidential primaries. We buy the magazines, we thirst for the stories, and we crave entertainment from politics just as much as we demand policy and ideology. We can cluck our tongues at the media’s behavior, but they aren’t creating the market for hide-in-the-bushes journalism as much as they are meeting its demand.

And with that, the film leaves one major part of the story out: the infamous photograph of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap while he wore the Monkey Business crew T-shirt. Why leave that out? It’s the celebrity-scandal fulcrum on which this story ultimately turned. It’s hinted at toward the end, with a Hart campaign worker rebuking a Washington Post reporter for becoming “the National Enquirer” while holding a photograph, but we never actually see the photograph. Its absence from the discussion feels like a deliberate lacuna, one that avoids discussing the tougher questions this scandal raised.

Nevertheless, The Front Runner is an excellent film, one that will at least prompt questions as to how we got where we are now, even if there’s no real way to go back to a status quo ante. On the Hot Air scaleThe Front Runner gets a 5:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Front Runner is rated R, likely for its prolific profanity. There aren’t any scenes of explicit sexuality or violence. It’s not likely to interest teenagers or children anyway. It gets a 5 not because the theatrical presentation would deliver a significantly enhanced experience over modern home entertainment systems, but because the performances and the discussion deserve that kind of attention.

Earlier today, Donna Rice Hughes released a statement about the film and her own future plans:

“For the past 31 years, various parts of my story have been told and retold in books, news stories, television documentaries, and now in a major motion picture, but not by me. The Front Runner is Senator Hart’s story, not mine.  The film ends where the trauma in my life began, after my name was released to the press by the Hart campaign. The ensuing feeding frenzy was driven by the mainstream media, who, for the first time in the 24/7 news era, went both feral and viral. While I had no involvement in the film, I am grateful to film director Jason Reitman for portraying my character in a sensitive and compassionate light, and to the talented Sara Paxton for her compelling performance.  I am also humbled by the kind public comments about me that have been made by the director and members of the cast.

The film is a dramatic representation based on the book, All the Truth is Out. However, all the truth is not out, as I have never told my own story. I have chosen to remain silent, for the most part, about this devastating turning point in my life. Rather than exploit the situation for my own gain, I chose the high road and sought to use my pain to help others. By the grace of God, I found healing and restoration and eventually came full circle. For the past 25 years, I have fought to prevent the sexual exploitation of children in the digital world through my organization, Enough Is Enough®. I am now at a point in my life where I believe it is the right time to share my life’s journey, in my words and in my way, and am currently working on my memoir. In the meantime, I encourage others to seek the high road, as I did, and find hope and purpose in the midst of their life’s storms.”

That might make for an interesting film as well.