The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s political dramedy and light satire about Gary Hart, is set in a quaint, bygone era when adultery could derail a politician’s career and when there were no news networks trying to fill 24 hours of programming each day. Things are different now, but the film, mostly a straightforward account of the final three weeks of Hart’s presidential primary campaign in the spring of 1987, doesn’t add anything to the current debate about privacy, tabloid news, and the morality of politicians — a missed opportunity to give an old episode new relevance.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart, a handsome-for-a-politician Colorado senator who’s caught having an affair with model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) while in the middle of campaigning — indeed, after daring the media to follow him around so they could see he had nothing to hide. Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s mortified but not naive wife (“The one thing I ever asked is that you don’t embarrass me”), with J.K. Simmons as his tough campaign manager, but it’s really an ensemble piece — almost Altmanesque at times — about the various campaign staffers and news reporters surrounding the story.
Those people have a wide range of opinions about the ethics of stalking a politician, about whether it matters if he is an adulterer, about the public’s right to know vs. a candidate’s right to privacy. You keep waiting for Reitman to connect the dots and provide insight into the politics of 2018, but while he and co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson (adapting Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out) recreate the sights and sounds of 1987 with nostalgia-goosing accuracy, with a tongue-in-cheek tone that keeps things from feeling too serious, it’s never anything more than a standard political biopic with a little zip to it.