It seems an age ago that politics was anything other than entirely bizarre. In the last couple of years, the quagmire of Brexit and the personality politics of Trump-era America has made us yearn for a time when governments were elected to tackle multiple issues, balancing domestic requirements in health, education and welfare with a multifaceted role on the world stage. And, as our leaders snipe across the Chamber with miscalculated grabs for power that serve a personal rather than the general interest, it may also make us nostalgic for a time when our now Teflon-like MPs seemed more accountable, when a personal scandal was all it took to end a career.
The sex scandal was the bread and butter of tabloid newspapers in the 1980s and 90s, and every weekend the now defunct The News of the World would splash an exposé about a footballer, celebrity or politician caught with their trousers down across the front page, a supposed defence of morality that usually resulted in resignation and shame, particularly for Parliamentarians. The names of politicians and the scandals associated with them live-on far beyond their political influence, including allegations that Jeffrey Archer used prostitutes and then perjured himself in court , David Mellor’s toe-sucking liaison and even the affair between John Major and Edwina Currie, while in the US the editorial gift of the Bill Clinton years resulted in an attempted impeachment that 20-years on the office has still not entirely shaken off.
It really all began of course with Profumo, the 1961 affair that permanently altered the relationship between the press and Parliament, one that drew a direct line between an individual’s personal life and their ability to serve in an office of state, where private lapses in judgement and moral fibre were seen to be endemic of their whole approach. It took much longer for American journalists to make the same link, and while the Watergate corruption was politically and legally damaging, it wasn’t until the 1980s when revelations of adultery sunk Senator Gary Hart’s bid for the Presidency in just three weeks, which a new film argues permanently changed the electoral relationship with the press.
But how do we decide what is genuinely in the public interest and do we really have a right to know what goes on behind closed doors? Jason Reitman’s new film The Front Runner, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October and arrives in UK cinemas this week, has a huge moral complexity at its heart, asking questions about the level of privacy any celebrity or public official should expect, and whether the media has become over-mighty or too officious in its self-appointed role as guardians of morality? Is democracy aided by knowing the sexual history of an MP or have journalists become too influential in shaping the careers of those we elect?
This relatively even-handed debate rages through The Front Runner, slowly revealing both the unyielding figure beneath Gary Hart’s charming exterior and the unreasonable pursuit of a story by those desperate to earn a scoop and sell newspapers. For both sides, politics becomes a cut-throat business and, compressed into just three weeks in 1987, Reitman along with co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson create an engaging tension that reflects the growing pressure on Hart and his team, as well as an almost thriller-like pace to drive the story. At the conclusion, no group emerges with their reputation intact, but by taking a multi-angled approach Reitman’s movie argues that this was a turning point in US media history, one which would have significant consequences for Bill Clinton only a few years later.
The biopic has undergone a significant transformation in the last few years, moving away from the cradle to grave approach which uses a narrative framework to show how an individual was propelled to greatness, and instead the biopic has become more focused, usually recounting in detail a single event or series of key moments in which the protagonist’s life was determined, and through which their inner world explained. Danny Boyle’s modern classic Steve Jobs was among the first to take this more psychological approach, soon followed by Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and more recently even Second World War movies The Darkest Hour and Churchill respectively honed-in on his rise to power in 1940 and his feelings of marginalisation by D-Day in 1944.
The Front Runner continues this tradition in showing only those few weeks that cost Gary Hart the Presidency – despite a now debated expectation that he would succeed Ronald Regan – and how his own personality, beliefs and values explain his demise when an indiscreet phone call to an alleged mistress is overhead by a journalist pushing Hart’s private life into the spotlight. Hart’s stubborn refusal to accept the relevance of this to his campaign creates a war with a group of journalists at the Miami Herald who are determined to prove their allegations, certain that Hart’s personal affairs are in the public interest and have considerable bearing on the campaign he vows to continue.
American Presidential politics, even at this time, was far more personality-driven than our own and Hugh Jackman in the title role brings all the twinkly charisma needed to charm a nation. But Hart has to charm the press first, and from the outside he appears to be exactly the breath of fresh air the country needs, clean-cut, attractive and refreshing in his appeal while retaining a down-to-earth homeliness as he holds a series of promotional photo shoots and interviews at his home in the Colorado mountains – a strategic move given the outgoing President was an actor famous for Westerns.
Crucially, Hart is at ease with the press, speaking openly with reporters on and off camera, never allowing the dignity of the office he pursues to separate him from the people he hopes to govern, and initially they love him for it until a chance moment of weakness offers them an even better story. In the second half of the film the tone changes rapidly and Reitman, Bai and Carson show us another side entirely, not just to Hart as the mutual and easy respect with the press pack starts to sour. As the story explodes, Hart’s halo slips, revealing his arrogance, and repeated failure to judge and respond to the escalating drama appropriately.
Jackman is an interesting and clever choice as Hart, utilising his charismatic screen presence to convey the long-forgotten Hart’s own allure while also reminding the audience of his diversity as a performer. Jackman is one of the few actors to escape the pigeon-holing of Hollywood, simultaneously working across genres and able to land parts in serious political films such as this one, while commanding respect for his work in big comic-book blockbusters such as X-Men as well as capitalising on his musical theatre background as the star of Les Misérables and The Greatest Showman.
Jackman is a fascinating Hart, oozing a Kennedy-like goodness in the early scenes that reveals so much about the perfect image we so readily respond to in our politicians. He has an easy ride to the White House and he knows it. But as the tide turns, we learn much more about the ruthlessness needed to become a political leader and how easily we are fooled by rhetoric. Insisting that the state of his marriage is a private affair, Jackman shows the hypocritical coldness beneath the surface, a resolution not to comment on matters he believes to have no relevance even after he realises the damage it is causing his reputation. This becomes a fatal flaw that will cost him the respect of the nation and his leadership dreams which Jackman plays with a blinkered tenacity. From our over-exposed modern perspective, we may argue that Hart had a point about the privacy of public figures, yet his decision to embark on an affair mid-campaign and determination to conceal it mark out his essential dubiety
But The Front Runner is more than a simple biopic and the audience is also asked to consider how the events depicted in the film affect our views on the role of the press in modern democracy. A number of recent films have lionised the integrity, bravery and determination of journalists including Spotlight and the forthcoming Private War, but Reitman takes an opposing view suggesting a tabloid sleaziness to Tom Fiedler’s (Steve Zissis) approach that broke an unofficial reporters code on what should make the news.
The feeding frenzy that follows the revelations of Hart’s affair (one of many that were subsequently revealed) escalates quickly affecting not just the Presidential candidate but hounding his wife and daughter who must visibly stand-by him while enduring a very public humiliation. It also hints at the consequences for the numerous people working for Hart and invested in his success including J.K. Simmons as the acerbic Bill Dixon, losing not just years of work but also their jobs, an effect that neither the press nor Hart can be entirely absolved of.
At a little under two hours, events move quickly with a narrative approach that evidently glosses over some of the complexities – even for a non-US audience – while leaving the moral conclusions to the viewer. The Front Runner argues that these three weeks were a turning point in American political history and the accuracy of that assessment as well as the importance of the people and events it depicts has been debated by other critics. Yet Reitman’s movie still asks important questions about the untempered and unelected freedom of the press to decide who should have power in society, as well as the nature of a political system that facilitates the rise of a certain kind of dubious morality and an undeserved entitlement in those we elect to lead us.
With Adam McKay’s biopic of Dick Cheney (Vice) also opening this month with a transformed Golden Globe-winning Christian Bale in the lead role and Amy Adams as his wife, The Front Runner may struggle to be noticed, but it is a film that gives us plenty to think about – perhaps more so for a British audience unfamiliar with the events it depicts and thus a stage removed from the veracity of the story. At a time when voters seem no longer to care about the personal life of the man in the White House, when outrageous allegations after shocking scandal barely make a dent, we have to wonder whether Gary Hart was right all along, do voters really care if you’re selling them the right dream?