Toxic politics

The summer holidays are almost over, and the smartest film of the season has been saved for last. It’s time for the adults to claim back to their cinemas!

The Front Runner

Most likely Jason Reitman’s gripping and thoughtful new political drama will be widely widely misunderstood. It’s lowly critics’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (59%) doesn’t auger well for its reception here. But then it’s pretty depressing to see the herd mentality of so many US reviewers so clearly under the spell of identity politics that they’ll damn an insightful piece of work just because it’s not the film they want it to be – they one they think it should be. Sadly, that appears to be the fate of The Front Runner, which tells the story of the charismatic and talented US politician Gary Hart (a terrific Hugh Jackman), a leftist Democrat considered a serious contender for president up against Reagan in 1988 brought down by a sex scandal. Hart was entitled, white, male, arrogant and married – and prone to shabby exploitative sexual liaisons with less powerful women. That’s right, everything today’s Gillette-shaving men shouldn’t be. But Reitman doesn’t tap into today’s cultural zeitgeist and slam him as toxic. Could it be that these things are complex, he’s asking? That there are other stories here, or at least differing perspectives on what happened?

But today’s mob don’t do shades of grey. Brows firmly furrowed, reviewers have labelled The Front Runner “misconceived”, “20 years too late” and “unbelievably naive.” Its worst sin is that “in the #MeToo era” (they all mention that) it “excuses bad behaviour” by directing some of the blame on an invasive media, who are presented fairly, but less than crusading white knights in shining armour. While Hart is definitely shown as deeply flawed, the thing woke critics inevitably hate is the portrayal of other women – a journalist is a hard-line feminist zealot (she’s a composite character), Hart’s mistress’ jealous model friend (Rachel Walters) ratted Donna Rice out (a matter of historical record), and Hart’s wife (Vera Farmiga) forgave him (ditto). There’s one scene too which shows Rice (Sara Paxton) clearly being manipulated and bullied into submission by a young female political intern. Sure, the intern (Molly Ephraim) is shown to be conflicted by her role in protecting her male boss, the left wing hero, but doesn’t the sisterhood all stand together against patriarchal oppression and boo in unison? Or shouldn’t it? Well, this film says, maybe it’s complicated…

If you like being preached to, follow the Twitterers and give The Front Runner the thumbs down. Heroes to cheer (women), villains to hiss (men) – nothing wrong with Marvel comix if you like to keep it simple. But if you’re an adult film-goer who prefers ambiguity, complexity and high-IQ storytelling, then get along to one of the best political films in years. And oh yes, it stars the always fantastic J.K. Simmons too as Hart’s campaign manager. The question the film implicitly asks (but is too smart to try and answer) is: To what extent did these events in 1987 help produce the freak-show politics that resulted in “fake news” and President Donald Trump? Is there a more important question than that right now? M from Jan 31 Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Broadway and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★1/2

View the trailer

* For history buffs – A quick internet search reveals that events as they unfolded towards the end are not quite as the film presents. Gary Hart didn’t resign immediately on the breaking of the sex scandal story, in fact he waited 48 hours, and seems to have been more motivated by an upcoming damaging NY Times revelation about a fiscal irregularity in his earlier 1984 campaign. As the end titles say – he did remain married to the wife he cheated on “to this day”, but he didn’t retire from politics. In fact he re-entered the Democratic race six months later, but failed after renewed scrutiny on his personal and financial affairs. In 2002 he seriously considered running again for President, but pulled out when John Kerry (the successful Democratic candidate) promised him a plum cabinet job. Today Donna Rice is a respectable, Trump-supporting evangelical lobbyist.

Review – Russell Edwards