'Front Runner' is a Beautiful Mosaic of Political Frenzy
As director Jason Reitman stepped to the podium on the closing night of the Chicago Film Festival to introduce his new movie, The Front Runner, he knew that many in the audience may not remember Gary Hart. He realized many more, like myself, didn't even know who he was.
Reitman didn't either, until three years ago when he heard a Rabiolab podcast about the 1988 presidential election. After obsessing over the pod and reading the corresponding book by Matt Bai, Reitman knew there was a movie to be found in the material. But what struck him, he told the audience, was how many different characters and angles within the story interested him. The Hart fiasco was as much about the campaign staffers, the journalists, and family members as it was about the man himself.
Sitting in the third row, I looked around to see if I was the only one in the theater rolling his eyes. It sounded like typical director brainwashing. Sure, Reitman believes that, but isn't this really just a Hugh Jackman movie? Most directors have a hard time telling one story well within a two hour run time, how is Reitman going to tell four or five? This isn't a TV show, I told myself, where you can balance an A plot and a B plot and a C plot around an ensemble cast of characters.
By the time Reitman returned to the podium for the post-screening Q&A, it was pretty obvious just how wrong I had been.
As it turns out The Front Runner is very much like a TV show, in the best possible way. It might be helpful to think of it as the best two-hour episode of "The West Wing" ever. Somehow Reitman was able to make viewers care about nearly a dozen different people, all with different motivations, and give them each a moment to shine.
Whether its newsletter-favorite J.K. Simmons' weathered campaign manager, scene-stealing Molly Ephraim's campaign office pawn, or emerging star Mamoudou Athie's conflicted Washington Post reporter, there are layers to the storytelling that allow for a really nuanced version of events (don't think I forgot my favorite stand-up comedian Bill Burr, who plays a Miami Herald reporter!).
My concern that there were too many conflicting chess pieces on the board was never an issue, because all of the characters found their journeys overlapping inside of this single propulsive force of plot that is a political campaign. At any particular event the candidate is speaking, the staffers are strategizing, the journalists are reporting and so on. All of the individual stories melded into sort of beautiful, cohesive mosaic.
Or perhaps a kaleidoscope, because the whole apparatus is constantly in motion. Reitman described the movie's pace as "phrenetic" and several scenes as "controlled madness," appropriate terms to describe the chaos of any real life political rally. "We wanted this film to feel as live as humanly possible," Reitman said, mentioning that at any given moment 15-20 characters all might have scripted dialogue. "The idea was we're going to throw so much dialogue at you that you can't listen to all of it at once, you have to pick."
The result can be at times disorienting, but it all feels very exciting and urgent, like there's literally not a moment to waste on waiting for someone else to finish talking. In this world a million important decisions are being made, and have to be made right this second.
Some scenes are downright Sorkin-esque. There may not be the signature walking-and-talking of "The West Wing," but there's plenty of snappy dialogue and witty one-liners to go around. Because of the drama and stakes of each situation, these moments of comedy are really effective.
Reitman acknowledges that all of this frenzy might make certain situations hard to follow, singling out his opening shot as an example where the camera roams around a plaza while the audience is desperately trying to figure out who to pay attention to. This is intentional. "We wanted to establish real rooms where people are doing their jobs, and a lot of times you don't know exactly what's happening, but you can follow along," he said. His point seems to be that every different perspective matters in telling the tale of Gary Hart.
However, what really elevates this movie is how it plays with its pace. For all of the go-go-go moments, there are a handful of times where everything slows to a halt. All of a sudden a scene will be very quiet and still to allow for an emotional moment between two characters. In contrast to the craziness of everything else, these moments really suck you in. Whether it's between Hart and his wife, or a staffer and mistress Donna Rice, these pockets of emotional sincerity resonate.
There will undoubtedly be some who watch The Front Runner and investigate its politics. As has been mentioned in previous newsletters, it's seemingly impossible for a movie to come out in 2018 and not be wrapped in some controversy, no matter how innocuous the subject matter. And yet, despite the overtly political nature of this film, there's nothing too heavy-handed or partisan to be found. In fact, I found myself more intrigued by the ethical questions raised about journalism and the role of the media on public life than Hart's liberal or conservative leanings.
Besides, Reitman made two things clear in his Q&A: 1) That this was not a documentary, and not meant to be, citing the journalist character of an example of a composite created out of two real people, and 2) that he was Canadian, so his political opinions don't matter anyway.
"I didn't make the movie to tell people how to think."
Well, I'll tell you what I think. The Front Runner is one of the best movies of the year.
If you enjoyed this movie, or plan to go see it, here are two more to check out: something old and something to stream!
The Candidate (1972)
The most obvious choice here is All The President's Men, but the film that Reitman says most inspired him in the making of his movie was another Robert Redford 1970s classic. This movie is criminally underrated, both as one of the best political dramas of all time and as one of Redford's very best performances. Seeing how this movie portrayed politics in the 70s, how The Front Runner shows the '80s, and the movie below described the late 90s/early 00s, it's a nice reminder that politics have always been over-the-top crazy.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
As you know by now, there are two types of Denzel: movie star Denzel, and serious actor Denzel. This movie captures the latter, as he plays a PTSD-ridden war hero who is definitely paranoid and might actually be crazy. It's wild to say this about a remake of a 1962 movie that was originally based on a best-selling novel, but the movie is built around a wildly original plot. Throw in a supporting cast of Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep and Jon Voight, and count me in 10 times out of 10.