In 1988, Robert Altman made Tanner '88, a groundbreaking HBO political series - decades ahead of the trend for major filmmakers to float new ideas on cable TV - which recalibrated the director's freewheeling technique for a smaller canvas and a different audience. Thirty years later, and having been kicked from pillar to post by Film Twitter's hip young gunslingers for having no recognisable style of his own, Jason Reitman has written and directed a political drama, set in 1988, that for at least half of its running time appears to be impersonating Altman as much as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson's early films did. This mimicry is apparent from The Front Runner's very first scene, an extended tracking shot that pulls us into and through a gathering political circus, alighting on major and minor players alike while the overlapping dialogue - and a careful sound mix - attunes us to a sense of America the absurd, obsessing about the wrong things at the wrong time. That's the backdrop. The main event is a replay of one of the biggest political nosedives in recent memory: that of Gary Hart, the dashing Democratic senator-turned-presidential candidate, who's tracking a full twelve points ahead of his Republican rival George H.W. Bush as we join the film, the result of Kennedy-like genes and an ability to explain the bigger issues in terms rustbelt voters could understand. It was meant to be an easy victory - too easy, as it proved, as reporters who grew bored of the candidate's gladhanding uncovered evidence of a grabbier story: Hart's extramarital affair with the actress Donna Rice.
It is, then, a matter of image. On the stump, Hart infamously challenged the press corps to follow him home to see what a dependable, devoted soul he was; when they did just that, what they happened across gave the lie to the notion Hart was the family man America needed to carry it beyond the Reagan years. Hart is played here by Hugh Jackman, with much of the skill the actor exhibited in his pre-Wolverine roles and that knitwear-sporting patrician charm by which our leaders sometimes seek to reassure us, front and centre in a scene where he calms a nervy young stringer mid-flight by gently schooling the lad in Tolstoy. Yet the performance also lets us spot how this Hart's charm is founded on a bedrock of something flintier, minded towards keeping dirty laundry secret, closing stories down. (A telling gesture in Jackman's arsenal: smiles that die quickly on the lips.) Reitman's fondness for supporting players is evident in the recall of such expert veterans as Kevin Pollak (as the Miami Herald's editor) and J.K. Simmons (as no-nonsense campaign manager Bill Dixon), while other picks suggest he's been watching a lot of TV between projects: we get fun contributions from Alex Karpovsky (Girls), Oliver Cooper (Red Oaks) and David Simon go-to Chris Coy among the policy wonks, plus the excellent Steve Zissis (from the late, lamented Togetherness) as Tom Fiedler, the journo who first stumbled upon the Rice affair.
Casting the net far and wide means some performers come to feel more crucial in the overall tableau than others. Early scenes hint that Alfred Molina's Ben Bradlee will feature more prominently than he ultimately does; as we've seen Tom Hanks playing the same role in the past twelve months (back in Spielberg's The Post), perhaps Reitman felt it was best to move on. Yet it feels odd that Donna Rice herself (represented here by the generally capable Sara Paxton) should qualify for barely two scenes at the eye of the storm, and that Hart's wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) should wind up with even less screen time than that: Reitman insists the fallout from these events was far more political than personal. One key difference between Reitman and the doubtless less politically correct Altman may be the former's refusal to pick a side, or rather his insistence on attempting to see all sides simultaneously, much as he did in his breakthrough films Juno and Up in the Air. You could easily envisage a more overtly tragic version of The Front Runner that presents Hart as either a victim or a patsy, encircled by a scandal-starved, ravenous press pack who were looking for trouble; equally, you could imagine a wickedly satiric retelling that saw Gary Hart as a proto-fuckboy, tripped up by his own lowered trousers, and deserving of everything that befell him. Reitman's film, bound for the movie centreground, instead forms an attempt to revisit a long-cooled story, without undue judgement, in the hope there's still an audience out there mature enough to enter into and negotiate its moral mazes.
That's honourable, but the downside of that approach, much in evidence during The Front Runner's second half, is that the film can present as insistently non-committal, cancelling itself and some of the cast's fine work out in the course of successive scenes. A meeting in which Bradlee shruggingly agrees to publish Hart-related hearsay - where the film seems to gesture at some journalistic race to the bottom - is immediately followed by a sidebar in which Post reporter Ann Devroy (Ari Graynor) insists it's a feminist matter when you can't trust the President to keep it in his pants. (We emerge none the wiser from the back-and-forth: were the press vultures in the Hart affair, or were they, in fact, sterling civil servants?) Formally, too, the film settles for being never quite as distinctive as that opening tracking shot threatens. Those Altmanisms are set aside once we're caught up in the thick of it in favour of not untypically self-effacing set-ups in which Reitman, the centrist dad of modern American cinema, allows a moment to play out without undue editorial intervention. What we're left watching is well-made, well-acted and sensitively handled, yet the newspaperman in me was left frustrated by the film's inability to decisively answer one question: what, beyond a generalised nostalgia for a scrap of innocence our forefathers may have lost, does this narrative have to do with American politics as we understand it in 2019?
The Front Runner previews in Cineworlds nationwide tonight, before opening on Friday.