New Political Cinema: ‘The Front Runner’
‘The Front Runner’ marks a boundary change in political reporting.
In the seventies, Hollywood went into politics – at least the Left did, and there’s a fine legacy headed by the endlessly rewatchable ‘All the President’s Men’. Political tales make for fine drama although there’s a tendency to turn them into satires like ‘Wag The Dog’, ‘Bulworth’, ‘War Machine’ or ‘The Death of Stalin’. Imagine a film now that tried to satirise the Trump years. Such films have more resonance when played straight. But how do you dramatise events that mostly unfold in the drab offices of middle-aged white men? You pick crisis points and go behind the scenes. This is what James Graham has done with his Brexit drama.
I’d list ‘Seven Days in May’, ‘Milk’, ‘The Ides of March’, ‘Petain’, ‘The Parallax View’, ‘Three Days of the Condor’, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Frost/Nixon’, ‘Syriana’, ‘Z’, ‘Salvador’, ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘Missing’ among the top contenders, although there’s a surprisingly wide range to choose from. Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ chose to tell the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, which exposed the criminal deceit over Indochina/Vietnam conducted by successive presidents, but contained the best and worst of the director’s tics.
Now we have Adam McKay’s knockout ‘Vice’, about the pernicious, toxic agenda of Dick Cheney, told in the kind of freewheeling style he used for ‘The Big Short’, and ‘The Front Runner’, in which Hugh Jackman plays Senators Gary Hart, who wrecked his chances in the 1988 Democratic election because he failed to understand the press’s prurience about his private life when he was concentrating on outlining policy. He simply could not see what the personal and the public had to do with one another, in much the same way that Alan Turing failed to understand why his sex life had anything to do with his pioneering work.
He was right, of course, if naive; unorthodox private arrangements have nothing to do with leadership because becoming POTUS is not remotely in the realm of normality. The landscape changed under Hart”s feet even while he was on the campaign trail; the press turned away from the careful gathering of data that marks ‘All the President’s Men’ as such an elegant work and became a howling, mudslinging wolf pack.
But Hart was a skirt-chaser who would have been tripped up at some point. The shock here is seeing how the gentleman’s agreement between the press and the White House was torn up. The treatment of political subjects then (cynical, serious, demanding, complex) and now (simplified, button-pushing, interest-invested) is the real story, and as the reviews arrive for the film this month you can expect the press to push back and question their role.
Thus, ‘The Front Runner’ marks a boundary change in political reporting. This is loosely the point where the public swapped out political issues to be drip-fed showbiz gossip. In twenty years’ time we could be seeing a Donald Trump film that reverses that polarity; the present may find the public dismissing the man to look at his political effect on the world. But I have a feeling that if the Republican press who ignore Trump’s grotesque treatment of women had judged Gary Hart, they would still have vilified him. In politics you can’t second-guess and you never win.