Before Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky there was Gary and Donna. That’s Gary Hart, the Democrat Senator from Colorado who was a dead cert to get his party’s nomination to run against George Bush Snr – the one who’s just died – as President of the United States in 1988. Hart was the front runner both as Democrat candidate and as potential President. At one stage he had a two figure lead over Bush Snr as preferred President. He was handsome, articulate, intelligent, confident and charismatic but, like so many ambitious and powerful men, he had a weakness for attractive young women, and he was brought down and left the race when the press exposed his affair with a young woman called Donna Rice, and Bush snr went on to defeat Democrat Michael Dukakis, the third presidential victory for the Republicans in a row and the only time either of the major parties had won three in a row.
So far, so mundane. A common story, but it’s masterfully told. It unfolds like a thriller, with the pacing and tone just right. I liked that the fall is a long time coming, and even though we know the outcome it’s still suspenseful. Hugh Jackman is marvelous as Hart, the presidential front-runner with something of Barack Obama’s eloquence and high-mindedness and something of Bill Clinton’s personal charm as well as his propensity for ‘straying off the porch’, as Hillary once put it.
Gary Hart’s downfall could well mark the turning-point in modern history when the media stopped turning a blind eye to the sexual indiscretions of prominent public figures. Look what Jack Kennedy got away with, and what Clinton, who was a monk by comparison, didn’t. Hart, coming between the two, failed to spot the change in public attitudes. He actually taunts the press when the first rumours surface to ‘follow me around’ if they think he’s up to hanky-panky. When the Miami Herald does just that, and catches Donna Rice leaving his Washington apartment in a late-night stakeout, he indignantly berates them, apparently genuinely believing that their behavior is reprehensible but that his is not, being a purely private affair and ‘none of their business’. He actually says so to his campaign manager, adding ‘the public doesn’t care about the sexual lives of politicians’.
This is the kind of movie the Americans do very well: the political/journalistic drama: think All the President’s Men, about the Watergate affair which brought down the Nixon presidency, or Chappaquiddick, about Ted Kennedy’s fall from grace, or Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s exposure of the extent of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. True stories about the interplay of power between the media and powerful institutions.
Incidentally, one of the players in the drama is Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of the Washington Post whose investigators Woodward & Bernstein brought down the Nixon government in the 60s. He’s played by Alfred Molina.
The Front Runner is based on the book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai.
After the disappointment of Vice, the Dick Cheney biopic which could have been made by Mike Moore on hallucinogenic drugs, The Front Runner is a welcome return to form.