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Journalists’ cameras are always watching in The Front Runner, director Jason Reitman’s take on the scandal that ended Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Rated R for language and thematic situations, the film is a sprawling account of Hart’s political demise. In the end, it focuses as much on journalists’ paparazzi tactics as on Hart’s adultery, which is implied rather than shown.
Hugh Jackman plays Hart, a seeming family man and the foremost contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart believes in old-school public relations where winking reporters allow candidates to keep their personal lives private. “If I do a photo shoot today, what’s tomorrow? Talent shows?” Hart asks his long-suffering campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons).
When journalists piece together rumors that Hart may be having an affair with a woman he met on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business, they conduct an amateur stakeout outside Hart’s townhouse.
What starts out as a piece of investigative journalism turns into a debate about journalism ethics. Fresh out of the Watergate era, reporters are hungry to hold political leaders responsible for their public and private actions—but when does accountability cross over into gossip?
Some of the most snappily written moments of the film come when reporters on the Miami Herald, in possession of spotty evidence, debate whether to double-check facts or barrel ahead with their story.
“It’s up to us to hold these guys accountable,” a Miami Herald reporter tells his editor, pushing him to publish before the competition.
The Front Runner plays as a smart political drama: It doesn’t so much preach about journalistic or moral ethics as show the consequences of violating both. Hart’s reputation unravels due to a scandal that, sadly, seems quaint 30 years later, but we see his family and campaign staff suffer the most. On the other hand, journalists grapple with guilt because, according to the film, they initially base their story on grainy pictures and shaky rumors.
Ultimately, the film is a sobering reminder for aspiring journalists and politicians alike: Sin wreaks devastating consequences.