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The Front Runner review - Political drama misses the mark

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The Front Runner is a finely acted, but muddled political drama based on a true story. Hugh Jackman stars as Gary Hart, an American democratic senator, whose 1988 presidential campaign was derailed by accusations of an extra-marital affair.

It's difficult to shake the feeling that The Front Runner frames Gary Hart's fall from grace as some kind of turning point in the history of political journalism and news media - a line that was crossed for the worse, blurring the line between serious reporting and tabloid gossiping.

The ideal, hard-working, straight-laced candidate whose success is undermined not so much by a personal failing, but by the ravenous press all too eager to dig into his personal life. I'm not sure where I stand on the issue, but I do believe that Gary Hart's story doesn't lend itself well to this particular interpretation. It puts him on a pedestal that feels undeserved.

The famiilar trope of the weary old guard of journalism shows up well. You know the one. Veteran reporters and editors forced to write and/or publish stories not because they want to, or believe in them, but because they need to sell papers - because that's just what the world is like now.

Yet here, it doesn't quite sit right. At one point, a newspaperman played by Alfred Molina mentions how back in the day they used to turn a blind eye to the extra-marital affairs of politicians and even presidents. I think it's meant to be a fond look at a simpler time, at 'the good old days', and that's just weird. 

The Front Runner's biggest problem is that it either doesn't know what to say about the collapse of Gary Hart's campaign or doesn't know how to say it.

While that alone is a great, big stinking problem that's very hard to overlook, it doesn't mean that the movie is a complete failure. Hugh Jackman plays Gary with both charisma and tight-lipped intensity, and Vera Fermiga shines as his wife Oletha 'Lee' Hart.

When it comes to exploring the emotional fallout of the scandal, The Front Runner gives its cast the opportunity to stretch their dramatic chops - and they deliver the goods. In addition, J.K. Simmons as a senior Hart campaign official frequently steals the show with memorable quips delivered with trademark dry wit. 

Gary and Lee's tense heart-to-heart is a particular highlight, as is a confrontation between Hart and Simmons' character.

There's a subplot involving another member of the campaign, Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) and Donna Price (Sara Paxton), the woman who Hart allegedly had an affair with. Irene knows full well that while Hart has an entire team and a ton of resources to help him tackle the scandal both politically and personally, Donna has no one. Once the campaign cuts her loose, she'll be on her own and the shadow of the scandal will follow her for a long time.

It's easy to feel bad for Donna in all of this, but like with a lot of other things, the movie doesn't dig as deep as it could and should have. I expected something more about Donna's fate in the traditional biopic 'where are they now' bit at the very end, but somewhat disappointingly, there wasn't anything of the sort.

Donna's fate in the movie is a question mark, and while you can certainly just look her up if you're curious, it still feels like The Front Runner missed a step here. 

It's a hard movie to recommend. Purely in terms of performance, it's well worth seeing - the talented cast puts on a good show. If you've never heard of Gary Hart or his campaign, it's a decent introduction to an interesting bit of history. In all other respects, The Front Runner leaves a lot to be desired. 

The Front Runner is in cinemas on January 11th.

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