But “The Front Runner,” the new movie starring Hugh Jackman that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday night, wants to take audiences back to a time — specifically the spring of 1987 — when simple adultery was still enough to bring down a presidential candidate.
Hugh Jackman stars as former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, who seemed destined to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination after declaring his candidacy in April 1987. But a report published in the Miami Herald less than a month later claimed Hart had spent the night with an unidentified woman in his Capitol Hill townhouse.
The ensuing firestorm resulted in the end of Hart’s presidential campaign — and spurred a national debate about whether the sex lives of public figures were fair game for the press.
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The movie, directed by Jason Reitman (“Up In the Air,” “Thank You For Smoking”), is based on Matt Bai’s 2014 book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” The book argued the Miami Herald’s reportage marked the start of a decline in standards in newspaper journalism that quickly spread to magazines and television.
The early reviews of the movie, which hits theaters Nov. 7, are mixed.
In the Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Farber called the film “both provocative and somewhat disappointing.”
“The theme of the film seems to be that Hart opened the floodgates to the tabloid press and became a kind of martyr to the media’s sudden eagerness to flay politicians’ sexual misdeeds,” Farber writes.
Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeff Wells called the film “an exacting, brilliantly captured political tragedy” and compared it to Michael Ritchie’s 1972 Oscar-winning comedy “The Candidate,” which starred Robert Redford as a lawyer who runs for senator in California.
For The Wrap, Sasha Stone writes “the film steers clear of giving us an easy moral outcome. It neither shames Hart nor redeems him.”
In his review, Indiewire movie critic David Ehrlich writes “The Front Runner” is driven by two questions: “To what degree was the fallout Hart’s fault, and what role do the media (and the American people) play in the supposed degradation of our national priorities?”
Ehrlich deems the movie “lucid but lifeless” and writes that the film is “broadly sympathetic of Hart’s situation; it doesn’t absolve him of being a [bad] husband, but it side-eyes the press for whipping the story into a national firestorm.”
Judging by the early reviews, the Miami Herald writers who broke the story don’t fare well in the movie.
Reporter Tom Fiedler went on to become the Herald’s executive editor from 2001-2007 and is now serving his last year as dean at Boston University’s College of Communications before retirement. He is played in the movie by Steve Zissis, best known for the genial HBO comedy “Togetherness.”
Jim Savage, who was the Herald’s investigations editor at the time, is played by Mike Judge, the creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Kevin Pollak plays the Herald’s publisher, an apparently fictional composite named “Bob Martindale” (Dick Capen was the Herald’s publisher from 1982-1989).
“It doesn’t do the fourth estate any favors that the Miami Herald reporters who bust this thing wide open have less in common with Woodward and Bernstein than they do with the Keystone Cops,” Ehrlich writes in his review.
In an email, Hollywood Elsewhere’s Wells said the movie depicts the Herald as “sleazy,” a word that also shows up in the Hollywood Reporter’s review.
“The relationship between the Herald and Gary Hart is depicted as deeply antagonistic, especially on the Herald’s part,” he said. “Gary Hart screwed himself with his own carelessness, but the Miami Herald is depicted as being more or less on the same level as the National Enquirer.”
Fiedler, Savage and reporter Jim McGee (who apparently doesn’t appear in the film) published an exhaustive account on May 10, 1987, about how the Hart story came together.
After the publication of Bai’s book in 2014, Fiedler wrote a piece for Politico, titled “Did the Gary Hart Scandal Really Ruin Politics?” in which he defended the original stories.
Fiedler also told the Herald in 2014 that political reporters had to change their methods after the Democratic and Republican parties changed the rules on nominating candidates in the 1970s.
“Once candidates started being chosen by voters in primaries, the press had to change the way it operated,” Fiedler said. “If the press didn’t ask these kind of questions, who would? The voters needed a way to test the abilities and the character of the candidates.”
“I don’t think the story was about his sex life,” Fiedler said. “It was really a test of Gary Hart’s authenticity. It went to the heart of his credibility: Who was he?”