New Political Cinema: ‘The Front Runner’

Film

‘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.

6 comments on “New Political Cinema: ‘The Front Runner’”

  1. Gary Hart says:

    I was at college at the time all this was going on, and boy did I suffer for it.
    That man owes me.

  2. Brooke says:

    “This is loosely the point where the public swapped out political issues to be drip-fed showbiz gossip…” Recall that a financial crisis was brewing in the background, which eventually cost the public billions. At the time, only a few lines in the financial press …

    Forget the cinema versions (The Big Short, the book, is an eye-opener) and press hype of the day–pay attention to the money flows and who benefits.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    Where would you put Peterloo in this mix of political films?

    I think celebrity was ushered with Reagan, as for the skirt chasing I wonder how JFK would faired in that background that Hart faced. And the press were seen as hard drinking etc. and then wonder why the finger of hypocrisy and looks of disbelief follow them.

    Wayne.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I’m not sure that the personality cult started with Reagan. How about Washington or Andrew Jackson? As for JFK, he’d never have survived Hart’s treatment. I wonder how much electing the president separately has to do with the personality thing. We had Pierre Trudeau and Churchill got, what was it, one election after the war? Electing the head of government and the head of state in one person seems dangerous to me because you’re asking for too much from one person.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I had a great idea for a movie about Trump. He’s put in the stocks, and the film is ninety solid minutes of Americans he has let down punching him in the face. No dialogue, no music, just the sound of a six time bankrupt realtor, who has a face like a slapped arse, getting a face like a punched one.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    Fair point Helen, I guess we could back to the ancient rulers and their epic tales. As someone said, ‘Every generation thinks it invented sex.’

    In a way Trump shows that democracy is working just not in the way we always wish, it shows politicians if the keeps listening to ‘big interests’ instead of people they will do desperate things, at least it’s better than civil war.

    Wayne.

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