Monday, November 19, 2018

THE FRONT RUNNER -- My review (of the reviews)

It’s very interesting to watch a new movie and then have a Q&A with the director and writers. They usually have a vision of what they wanted their film to be and you get to judge whether they succeeded (in your opinion) or not. Such was the case with seeing THE FRONT RUNNER at the WGA and then hearing from director/co-writer Jason Reitman and writers Jay Carson and Matt Bai.

The movie, in case you’re unfamiliar or it hasn’t hit your town yet, is about golden boy Senator Gary Hart and how his run for the presidency was derailed in a three-week period over an extra-marital affair in 1988. Yes, that seems almost quaint now, but back then when a president’s character meant something to all Americans, just the possibility of impropriety was enough to kill a political career. So for many the movie was wistful nostalgia. 

I enjoyed THE FRONT RUNNER. Hugh Jackman played Gary Hart. Hart was very charismatic and Jackman actually had to tone down his charisma to portray Hart. The rest of the cast was terrific. Vera Farmiga can do no wrong, J. K. Simmons was his usual excellent self (although at any moment I kept expecting him to launch into a State Farm commercial), Molly Ephraim was smart to quit her day job (LAST MAN STANDING), and Mamoudou Athie was a real standout.  (I wonder if Mamoudou Athie is just his stage name?)

The writing was crisp, visually the movie was very interesting. You really felt you in the middle of a presidential campaign. Every scene was packed with people talking over each other and eating stale sandwiches on the run.  I can't imagine this movie ever playing on CBS because so many people in it were not good looking enough. 

Was it a groundbreaking movie? Will it be an Oscar “front runner?” No. But Reitman’s vision of showing the events from numerous perspectives was very much realized (in my opinion). You saw the affects of the affair on his family and his staff, and you saw the way journalists chose to cover the story – at times heroically and other times sleazily. There were ethics issues, #MeToo issues, judgment issues.

Again, my problem was that in light of current events, what was then such a shocking story now feels like the 24-hour news cycle on a slow day. But the movie was written in the Obama era. So much of a film's success rides on luck and timing and not being released the same day as a STAR WARS chapter. Sometimes you catch the zeitgeist and other times it leaves you in its wake.

Anyway, I went home and out of curiosity went on Rotten Tomatoes to see the critical reaction. YIKES. Most hated it. You realize the filmmaker’s vision means nothing unless it jibes with theirs. And for most of these reviewers, they wanted a different movie. Some thought it should have focused more on Donna Rice (the affair-ee) and dealt primarily with the unfairness and double-standard women have to endure. Yes, that’s certainly valid, but…

That’s not the movie Reitman chose to make.

Others had my reaction but way more severe. There was no just viewing it as a timepiece. To some it was irrelevant and why bother even making the damn thing? Uh… because it was entertaining?

Some questioned Jackman’s portrayal of Hart – like they’re so intimately familiar with Hart’s public and personal persona.

The overall point was these critics went into the movie with certain expectations, and instead of viewing it for what it was they viewed it as what it should have been (in their opinion).

And this is where every artist comes to a crossroad. Do your vision or try to ascertain what vision would be most embraced? If you go with the former you could go down in flames. If you go with the latter you probably will go down in flames and you’ll get less sympathy from me than I had for Gary Hart.


Kosmo13 said...

That's Hugh Jackman in the photo at the top of the blog post? At first glance I thought it was David Spade.

Nick Alexander said...

Written by the same person who panned the Three Billboards movie for it not playing to his expectations.

McAlvie said...

I would imagine this is a common problem when producing a story about actual events. People always think they already know the story, and anything retrospective is going to see events from a different angle. That will always anger some people, but those people are going to be angry regardless. I think movies like this are a great idea because they introduce viewers to events they weren't around for or weren't old enough to remember.

On another subject, I saw Nancy Travis on Netflix's The Kominsky Method the other night and she looked like she was having fun with the role. But I did have to laugh, given your opinion that she was the hot young wife to Tim Allen's schluppy husband, and wonder what you thought of her pairing with Michael Douglas who is now decidedly schluppy.

Janet Ybarra said...

If people are going to say, "Why bother? It's irrelevant," to any period movie, then what was the point producing THE POST last year? Or the Oscar-winning ARGO?
Or one of the films we just feted William Goldman for, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN?

If true, that's a sad, sad commentary on where we are as a society.

The Gary Hart story is interesting on a number of different levels. One, of course, being the precedent which Bill Clinton had to overcome several years later.

It's inevitable, I suppose, that #MeToo would be read into the film even as events of the film predate #MeToo by some 30 years.

But you have to consider Gary Hart as an individual. On the one hand, the result was his own fault for his hubris of basically taunting the press, "Come chase me."

But after that scandal--and today it does appear quaint and would hardly register--things quieted down for Sen. Hart and he never lost what was really a reputation as one of the best public servants.

As far as I know, his marriage remained intact and he became a strong analyst for "homeland security" before the term existed or even before 9/11. Indeed, he was trying to warn of an attack up until days before 9/11.

Also, had John Kerry won the presidency in 2004 (which would have happened had about 100,000 votes in Ohio gone the other way), Gary Hart very likely would have come in for a Cabinet position.

Which is not to excuse an extra marital affair except to say that should have been between him and his wife.

Today we have a president who brags about grabbing genitals and pays off porn stars.

Granted, this is where I admire someone like Barack Obama, who served with honor and kept his pants closed while doing it.

But if I had to choose a close second, it would be Gary Hart.

Pat Reeder said...

I used to review movies on radio. One of my biggest peeves is critics who review the movie they would've made if anyone had been dumb enough to entrust them with that much money, instead of the movie that was actually made.

Daniel said...

"The overall point was these critics went into the movie with certain expectations, and instead of viewing it for what it was they viewed it as what it should have been (in their opinion)."

I COMPLETELY agree with this. It's my critical mantra. In fact, I just wrote something very similar on a friend's Facebook page earlier this morning.

That said--and I say this with all due respect--when you've posted your reviews of Zack Snyder's DC super-hero movies, that's not the perspective that comes across in your critique. From what I remember, your view was more or less: This darker view of Superman isn't the Superman I know and like.

I'm not singling you out. We're all guilty of this to some degree. But with those films in particular, I feel that most of the criticism they've received (including from you) is from the "it's not what I expected / not how I would have done it" school.

My two cents.

Michael said...

Ken - did you see Josh Lewin will not be returning to Mets radio broadcast team next year and will be announcing 'exciting new opportunity soon'. Maybe you will get your wish and the Dodgers will have a quality announcer next year.

Janet Ybarra said...

Oh, and in all the tumult regarding this film and #MeToo and the portrayal of women and Donna Rice, the woman in the film I am most eager to see portrayed is the late Ann Devroy.

I never met her, but as a indefatigable reporter for the WASHINGTON POST, she wasn't a celebrity, but she believed in doing great work.

She was taken by cancer way too soon. Not many people probably remember Ann Devroy today. I am one and am looking forward to seeing her if only in portrayal on the big screen in this film.

Unknown said...

This is the movie that should have been made.

Tom said...

Wait, so when presented with a story from the world of politics, the most vocal responses came from a bunch of people who had decided what they wanted to hear in advance and judged the product solely on its compliance with that prejudgement?

I'm shocked!

... but I will probably see the movie, even if a politician suffering for his transgressions is nowadays about as realistic as the Marvel universe.

E. Yarber said...

Criticizing writing is like weeding dandelions: you have to get all the way down to the root. In the simplest form, you should be able to get a sense of where the author is coming from within the first ten pages of a feature screenplay. I've certainly read a lot of adaptations that completely missed the point of the source material, and in cases like that you have to retrace the writer's steps back to the core of the story to figure out how they got so far off track.

The problem is when the critic becomes a frustrated writer and gets in competition with their subject instead of analyzing it. When you properly dissect a work, you should be trying to understand the choices the creator made in producing the piece. If the writer made terrible choices, you have to judge them objectively, not compare them to some supposedly superior approach you decide on the spot you would have taken. You have to deal with the work at hand, not a hypothetical case pulled out of thin air. The issue here is whether the film is getting a fair hearing or if the arguments made against it compare apples to oranges.

Janet Ybarra said...

Actually, if you were going to find an actor with a resemblance to Gary Hart, Jackman is a good choice.

Robert Redford would be another but today he would be too old for Hart 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Not that it has anything to do with the movie, but JK Simmons hawks for Farmers Insurance.

Pam, St. Louis

Mike Bloodworth said...

The December VANITY FAIR had an article about the movie. It was less a review than a publicity piece. They were more sympathetic to Hart alluding that he was the victim of an overzealous, tabloid-minded press. Of course, its V.F. and the piece was written by columnist Maureen Dowd, so you have to expect a certain amount of bias.
As for the filmmakers having "a vision of what they wanted their film to be..." it sounds as if that was not achieved. According to the article, Jason Reitman had "'a sneaky design' to re-frame the public view of (Donna) Rice." Based on your review it doesn't sound as if they did that. The V.F. article also touched on some of the same things in your review.
But the real question is who's vision? The movie is based on Matt Bai's book, All the Truth Is Out. This is a writing question for you, Ken. Even though Bai is a co-screenwriter should they have stayed true to the book? Or, if the book was just an outline, should the vision be that of the screenplay? Its obviously not a documentary, yet should you stay true to the facts? Or should they take full advantage of "dramatic license" and just make a movie that is, in your words, "entertaining?" A lot of times even the filmmakers are sure of what their vision is or should be.
My only other comment is that maybe a Donald Trump presidency was inevitable. There were many people that thought Gary Hart should have been President despite his alleged impropriety with Rice.

Janet Ybarra said...

That *would* have made a great film. Lee Atwater was a great villain. (Given how much forgiveness he sought in the last months of his life, I think he would have agreed.)

Buttermilk Sky said...

It's a minor point, but J.K. Simmons does commercials for Farmers, Dennis Haysbert for State Farm. See how closely we read your posts?

Tom, I believe Al Franken is an example of a politician suffering for (very minor) transgressions. Funny how it only applies to certain politicians.

Janet Ybarra said...

I am very torn as it relates to Al Franken.

On the one hand, an argument can be made that the photos that landed him in hot water were--while offensive and boorish--did not rise to the crimes of some of these other men.

On the hand, the fact that -- although not in office as a senator at the time the photos were taken, Franken had to be harboring some of the political ambition for what was to come -- and given that to put yourself in that position is an unforced error of the highest order. And a demonstration of really poor judgement.

It's a shame, really. Had Franken not landed in that mess, I do believe with his TV and celebrity background, he would have been in the top tier of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

Kaleberg said...

You are confusing critics and audiences. Critics are expected to evaluate the artistic vision. Audiences are expected to decide what they like, what resonates with them, whether they got their money's worth and whether they were wasting their time. The whole idea of a Gary Hart movie sounded like a waste of time for me unless it managed to say something new and interesting. According to the critics, it was a pretty conventional retelling with the usual pseudo-verite production values that critics seem to love for some reason, perhaps because it makes it harder to follow the dialog. According to the audiences, they didn't particularly like it, it didn't resonate, it was a waste of money, and it was a waste of time. Yawn.

I remember Gary Hart as a bit of a cipher, but popular with political insiders and the press. The whole Donna Rice affair seemed a minor matter, but for some reason the press decided it was important, so that was the agenda. If it wasn't an affair, they'd have bitched about the size of his lapels. I think I read the headlines and said good riddance, what prudes we mortals be. It wasn't even worth reading the first paragraph, let alone working my way down to the lede. Suddenly the press had started caring about a particular candidates's sex life. That was the news. Yawn.

YEKIMI said...

If they ever make a movie about the current occupant of the White House, it's going to have to be rated XXX.

thirteen said...

I was on the road covering some of the 1984 Democratic caucuses and primaries. Hart was a stiff, but he was good on TV. Walter Mondale was the exact opposite. More important (maybe), I met Sherrod Brown in Ohio. He was Ohio's secretary of state back then. Good interview. I thought "watch this guy," but I didn't think I'd be retired before he made his move.

Anonymous said...

Hell, I'm blown away by the fact that it was 30 years ago!! A whole lifetime ago. Janice B.

Coram_Loci said...

Is Gary Hart really consequential enough to justify a movie?

This affair, his taunting the media regarding the accusations, are what he's best known for. Why do I, as an audience member, want to know more about him? Really, if I want more then can’t I just go to Huffpost and read his writings.

Other than people in his immediate orbit, longtime fanboys, or people who just can’t quit wondering what-if, who reasonably thought this would be a draw or compelling?