The rise of mod­ern me­dia dys­func­tion is show­cased in por­trayal of fall of Gary Hart

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY GARY THOMP­SON

Ear­lier this year “Chap­paquid­dick” — a drama­ti­za­tion of Ted Kennedy’s in­volve­ment in Mary Jo Kopechne’s death — gave us an ac­count of po­lit­i­cal elites work­ing the levers of power to man­age a news cy­cle and con­trol cov­er­age of a scandal. “The Front Run­ner” ar­gues that two decades later, the me­dia land­scape had changed, and a scandal-fed news cy­cle was man­ag­ing the elites.

The film re­vis­its the 1988 pres­i­den­tial bid of Sen. Gary Hart (Hugh Jack­man), a promis­ing Demo­cratic can­di­date, who led in early polls against pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Ge­orge H.W. Bush af­ter he an­nounced his can­di­dacy.

Hart has an above- itall air about him (he holds his cam­paign an­nounce­ment at 10,000 feet, in his home state of Colorado), and the movie more or less sides with him — hold­ing him up as a vi­sion­ary with ahead-of-his-time views on the en­vi­ron­ment and tech­nol­ogy.

Hart’s views on the perks of be­ing a hand­some al­pha male in the D.C. seat of power were some­what more tra­di­tional — Hart was of­ten de­scribed as Kennedy-es­que, and in his case the ref­er­ence in­cluded spec­u­la­tion about af­fairs. Re­porters vet­ting his char­ac­ter won­dered about fre­quent sep­a­ra­tions from his wife (Vera Farmiga), and when the can­di­date brushed off such spec­u­la­tion by sug­gest­ing that re­porters who fol­lowed him would be bored, he tempted fate.

As we see in “The Front Run­ner,” some Mi­ami Her­ald re­porters did fol­low him, af­ter be­ing tipped off that Hart had met a young woman named Donna Rice in Florida aboard a boat called the Mon­key Busi­ness, and that she was vis­it­ing the can­di­date in Wash­ing­ton. A stake­out re­vealed that she was in­deed spend­ing a great deal of time there.

Were they hav­ing an af­fair? The movie doesn’t an­swer the ques­tion, and there­fore seems to align i t self with Hart, who de­clared it to be im­ma­te­rial to pres­i­den­tial qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Ari Graynor turns up as a Wash­ing­ton Post reporter who ar­gues the opposite, giv­ing voice to # MeToo move­ment con­cerns. But you can feel di­rec­tor Ja­son Reit­man’s affin­ity for Hart’s po­si­tion that a can­di­date’s pol­icy po­si­tions are vastly more im­por­tant than per­sonal pec­ca­dil­loes.

“The Front Run­ner” notes ( as did last year’s “The Post”) t hat t he na­tional press corps had tra­di­tion­ally looked the other way on ex­tra­mar­i­tal ac­tiv­ity, and won­ders what might have hap­pened had Hart’s dal­liance with Rice been ig­nored. Hart might well have won, chang­ing the course of his­tory ( in the movie’s view) for the bet­ter. Hart’s in­evitabil­ity is de­bat­able — he’s the same guy who lost a pri­mary fight some years ear­lier to the hardly charis­matic or vi­sion­ary Wal­ter Mon­dale.

But the movie is cor­rect to sug­gest that the Hart fi­asco was fu­eled by a new me­dia con­fig­u­ra­tion, with new pri­or­i­ties — the ad­vent of the 24-hour news cy­cle and its snow­balling, self-feed­ing news fren­zies. “The Front Run­ner” shows print re­porters el­bow-to-el­bow with tabloid TV cor­re­spon­dents who are com­man­deer­ing the tone of cov- er­age. In one scene, a Her­ald scribe with­draws from the fray, clearly alarmed by the spec­ta­cle his story has helped cre­ate.

Hart, though, is a dis­con­cert­ingly off-putting fig­ure in “The Front Run­ner.” As played by Jack­man, he’s im­pe­ri­ous, self-right­eous and hu­mor­less, and it’s hard to imag­ine such a fig­ure cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion of the pub­lic, pol­icy acu­men notwith­stand­ing. The movie is bet­ter at show­ing Rice (Sara Pax­ton) as a woman tram­pled by the press stam­pede — ditto Hart’s wife Lee, played el­e­gantly by Farmiga.

FRANK MASI/ SONY PIC­TURES

Hugh Jack­man stars in “The Front Run­ner.”

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