There are two shots in The Front Runner—one complicated, one less so—that express the film’s visual language and thematic content.
The first comes as the movie opens, during the closing moments of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. The scene outside the Moscone Center in San Francisco is a mad house, filled with news vans, revelry, and backroom mutterings brought out amongst the throng.
Jason Reitman takes us on a tour of this merriment via an impressively complicated crane shot, backing us out of a van where producers are having technical difficulties, around the anchors primping and preening while waiting for their shot to start, up and over the throng of Mondale supporters blissfully unaware of the butt-kicking coming down the pike, around to a couple of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) supporters already planning for 1988, and back to the news crews, still more worried about imagery than the message they’re delivering. After resting for a moment, we pull up and zoom high above, to a hotel where Hart’s team is dropping out of that year's primary and already beginning to chatter about the next run four years hence.
Reitman accomplishes a couple of things with this shot. The first is a demonstration of the riotous atmosphere surrounding a political campaign; dialogue blends together as the camera moves about, with words heard before we’re even sure who is saying them. It’s a clue about how the rest of the film will play out, how we are to read the picture: what is important, and what is unimportant, is up to us to decide.
This is also a key theme of The Front Runner, which concerns itself with our increasingly unserious politics. Hart, of course, was taken down after attending a party, and staying the night, on a yacht with a model/actress. He may have survived all that and what followed if he hadn’t been photographed wearing a shirt with the name of the yacht—Monkey Business—on it while Donna Rice sat on his lap. What The Front Runner asks its audience to consider, and what that crane shot—along with other, more stationary, moments in newsroom meetings and campaign strategy sessions—asks us to think about, is what is worth listening to. What matters? What should matter? Who—the press; the people; the pols—should decide what matters?
Hart didn’t help himself by being somewhat aloof when it came to his indiscretions. He thought it no one’s business but his own who he slept with and why. The second shot helps illustrate his shift in mood from uncomfortable and twitchy to warm and approachable. It comes when he meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). We don’t actually see Rice’s face—then, or until the last third or so of the film, actually—but we do see Hart’s reaction to it: his face softens; he stops looking around, worried about fending off the next glad-hander. He looks … happy.
It’s a brief moment of happiness, one that reveals Hart simply isn’t made the of the stuff required to be a politician in a world of 24/7 news, a world in which politics and celebrity have commingled to create a sort of bland, mushy moderation. He just wants someone to talk to, someone who will take him away from the crush.
I have no idea if this depiction is accurate or fair. The book on which The Front Runner is based, Matt Bai’s All the Truth Is Out, posits as much—that he was issue-driven and privacy-oriented—while also painting a somewhat rougher portrait of Hart, one in which he treats his wife with almost the same distance as he treats the press. But I like the idea Reitman, Bai, and cowriter Jay Carson are playing with here, the notion that men of substance are not suited for a substance-free world, one in which gaffes are the only thing the day-to-day press seems to care about.
One in which only a man who doesn’t care about gaffes, regardless of their substance, can win.
The Front Runner doesn’t have any answers, but it does ask us to question the political world we’ve built for ourselves—and whether or not we like it.