For those of us who lived through the debacle of the Gary Hart sex scandal, when the favorite to become the Democrats' 1988 Presidential nominee imploded after revelations of an extramarital affair, the wildest thing about Jason Reitman's riveting anatomy-of-a-firestorm drama The Front Runner may well be its reminder of how short the whole thing lasted. "A lot can happen in three weeks," an opening crawl informs us. But really, the controversy itself unfolded over the course of about one week during the spring of 1987.
For those whose memories don't reach that far: U.S. Sen. Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the charismatic flameout from the 1984 Democratic primaries, an alt-Kennedy from Colorado widely favored to both clinch the 1988 nomination and win the presidency. But murmurings about adultery and a troubled marriage had dogged him, and as his campaign took off, the candidate, frustrated at questions about infidelity, brazenly invited the press to follow him around. Within days, the Miami Herald had a story up about Hart's dalliances with a woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), and all hell broke loose.
But this is less a film about Gary Hart -- who, as played by Jackman, remains something of an enigma -- than one about the operatives and volunteers and journalists swirling around his candidacy. Reitman effectively captures the weird cadences of the scandal as it unfolded: the hectic efforts by the Herald and others to unravel Hart's misdeeds, as well as the campaign's efforts to stonewall and then manage the crisis. It makes for an intriguing combination of tones and rhythms -- urgency running up against paralysis -- that speaks to the twisted dynamism of our political process, then and now.