Hugh Jackman is best known for playing an iconic superhero. Now, in The Front Runner, he tackles a story with no heroes and no villains. Jackman plays Senator Gary Hart, a candidate for the 1988 Presidential election. Hart’s campaign was a turning point in American politics. It was the first time a candidate’s private life caused the implosion of their political career.
Get tickets now for The Front Runner, directed by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air). The movie opens on November 21, which means that’s when everyone will get to see how Hugh Jackman uses the movie as a dramatic master class.
Hart was a good-looking, charismatic Democrat. His campaign focused on creating jobs for middle-class Americans, and improving inner-city life. In the 1984 election, he strongly challenged the eventual Democratic Presidential nominee, Walter Mondale. In 1987, Hart was considered the front runner for the nomination. (Hence the film’s title.)
Then everything turned upside down. Gossip said Senator Hart was unfaithful to his wife. While the story’s momentum built slowly, it didn’t go away. One Washington Post reporter quipped that, if they took down Hart for his affairs, they’d have to go after half the Senate. In the spring of 1987, the Miami Herald watched the campaign aide said to be Hart’s girlfriend go into the Senator’s townhouse. The resulting story destroyed Hart’s presidential ambitions.
Hugh Jackman’s job was to get into Gary Hart’s head. The actor met with the former Senator to learn his mannerisms and character first-hand. In spite of his very public career, Hart has always been something of a cipher. Hart always denied having a sexual relationship with Donna Rice, the woman seen going into his home. As a person, he’s difficult to pin down.
“There is not one consensus on who that man is,” Jackman explained to Vanity Fair. “Just when you think it’s gonna be this, it’s something else, and that’s fascinating to play.”
Jackman had to tread a fine line — the role needs to be culturally relevant without explicitly commenting on the strangely contemporary nature of issues raised by the movie. “I’m being careful, a little bit, as someone who is an outsider,” he explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t vote here, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make too many domestic political comments.”
As Jackman’s comments suggest, the real challenge of The Front Runner is telling the story of Hart’s downfall without taking a side. Did the press make the right call in going after Hart for his extramarital affairs? Or was he innocent, as claimed?
Director Jason Reitman and Jackman himself are both careful to avoid commenting on what they believe to be true. The story isn’t tied up neatly. The story carefully avoids highlighting any one side of the debate, and Jackman avoids emphasizing dialogue so as to maximize the impact of certain arguments.
As he told Vanity Fair, “As an actor, there were times when I fell into that and I remember you pulling me up and saying, “Don’t load it, let the audience load it.” That was something I’d never had the challenge of playing before, someone so enigmatic.”
The buzz is that Jackman has absolutely nailed it, and produced an Oscar-worthy performance. The Front Runner premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and it received lavish praise from the critics. Indiewire’s review asked, rhetorically, “is there any actor in the world who’s better than Jackman at negotiating irrepressible charm with sinister undercurrents of ambition and power?”
Variety said Jackman “proves an inspired candidate to embody Hart, downplaying his brawny movie-star persona, while still conveying the twinkly-eyed sex appeal that would have made the photogenic and well-spoken senator from Colorado a logical choice to follow the country’s first movie-star president, had it not contributed so directly to his undoing.” And Scott Menzel, of We Live Entertainment, simply described Jackman’s performance as “phenomenal… unlike anything you have seen him do before.”
Get tickets now for The Front Runner, opening on November 21.