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As awards season starts to rear its head, and the festival fallout reaches the various publications of the internet, talk of who will make it to the big show is going to undoubtedly start up sooner rather than later. Jason Reitman's The Front Runner is one of those films that will enter the conversation, and with good reason, as his choice in subject matter - Gary Hart's 1988 presidential primary campaign - is the sort of subject that's a shoo-in for golden discussion. That being said, it's also a film that earns its distinction as an Oscar contender, as it's one of the best films this year has to offer.
In 1988, the political and media games changed in such a dramatic way that the shift is still felt to this day. This, roughly, was the first time a candidate's personal life was actively investigated by the press. It was the first time a party had to answer for said personal behavior, or risk defeat. And at the center of these drastic changes was Gary Hart, the presumed front runner for the Democratic presidential ticket, a young and idealistic politician who favored policy over sensationalism. Through the course of three weeks, he and the nation would become permanently changed.
The Front Runner isn't Jason Reitman's first foray into socially charged filmmaking, but it is his initial outing into the world of non-fiction adaptation. You wouldn't be able to tell though, as his co-writing / directing skills are applied to this film as effectively and viscerally as they are in the world of fiction. Rather than play the film out like a traditional biopic / historical piece, Reitman turns the story of the Hart campaign, and the three weeks that put it through the wringer, into something more lively and suspenseful. A personal history is portrayed like a suspense thriller, or even a horror film, at times in The Front Runner. The only difference is, the players are real people, and the weapons are statements, rebuttals, and denials.
It's perhaps best felt in the performances of the ridiculously talented ensemble, led by Hugh Jackman, playing the role of the Colorado senator with equal parts charming banter and gruff defense. His portrayal of Gary Hart shows a Jackman we haven't really seen on screen, as he doesn't overly play his hand in either direction of the behavioral compass. In this restraint, we're allowed to see a Hart that is not only totally believable as a candidate people would trust, but we're also allowed to decide for ourselves whether we believe him or not. Flanking him are high profile co-stars, like J.K. Simmons and Vera Farmiga; as well as younger, but equally motivated actors like Sara Paxton and Mamoudou Athie.
Refreshingly, the story of The Front Runner, written by Reitman, Matt Bai, and Jay Carson, takes that sort of balanced, wire-walk tactic, as well. The film isn't interested in lionizing its subject, nor are they interested in inducing pity for the man. What you want to see The Front Runner as is up to you, as all angles are covered. Those involved aren't looking to stir the pot towards any particular direction of the political spectrum -- rather, they're interested in the conversations that people had about politics in 1988, and the discussions they'll have as they walk out of the theater. Even films with the best political intentions can have a slant, but it takes a steady hand to tell an effective yet balanced story such as The Front Runner. The fact that they could do all of that, and still have one of the most entertaining dramas of the year, is something that deserves a round of applause.
The sign of a particularly good film based on true events is that it can thrill the audience, despite knowing the outcome. The Front Runner tells a well-documented, but not often talked about, American story with a propulsive, electrifying result. It's as entertaining as it is informative. This is also one of the most important films in our current political moment, laying out the origins of how we got to the political media complex we inhabit today. The fact that The Front Runner is as polished and entertaining as it is just makes it all the better to behold, but for every ounce of substance Reitman's film possesses, there's an equal amount of vital introspection present and accounted for.