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Movie Review

He was the second incarnation of John F. Kennedy for some: smart, handsome, idealistic, liberal. But Colorado Senator Gary Hart may have followed JFK's lead in less savory ways, too.

Hart entered the 1988 presidential campaign as the most promising pol inside the beltway. He'd just missed the nomination four years before. Republican juggernaut Ronald Reagan was now stepping away, turning the GOP's reins over to the beatable George H.W. Bush. Mario Cuomo, the other Democrat heavyweight, had already announced he wasn't running. And when Hart announced his candidacy on April 13, 1987—Colorado's soaring mountains serving as his backdrop—he was already the front-runner, leading the Democratic pack by double digits.

Only one thing could threaten Gary Hart's parade to the Democratic National Convention and, likely, to the doors of the White House: Gary Hart.

Even on that bright April day, The Front Runner tells us, people whispered about the candidate's alleged womanizing. Many knew about his philandering ways, including his wife, Lee. "She just looks the other way," says Gary's campaign manager, Bill Dixon.

It's not as if philandering pols were particularly new. JFK's womanizing was legendary. His successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had his share of paramours, too. But cheating was more accepted by many then, and the media of the day considered it irrelevant. Perhaps they would do so again.

But when a Washington Post reporter confronts Gary directly about his alleged infidelities, Hart bristles. "Follow me around," he says. "I don't care. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead."

Ironically, The Miami Herald was already doing just that.

The paper unspools an alleged affair with Donna Rice, a woman Hart met aboard a yacht called, pricelessly, Monkey Business. They trailed Donna to D.C., watched as she entered Gary's townhouse. The paper doesn't have any direct evidence of a tryst, but the implication is clear.

Gary's embarrassed and angry. My privacy's been violated, he blusters. The press shouldn't sink to the level of supermarket tabloids. The American people don't care.

Maybe so. Maybe not.

But it's clear that the scandal isn't just going away. And if Gary Hart hopes to save his political career, he'll need to convince both the public and the press that the real business of the country has nothing to do with Monkey Business at all.

Positive Elements

Politics ain't pretty, and The Front Runner is an intentionally ugly story. But still, the movie's thoughtful performances offer some salient positives and tragic morals along the way.

Some, of course, might regard The Front Runner's Gary Hart as a sort of Grecian tragic hero—an Achilles figure with the requisite fatal flaw. And regardless of his political leanings, we can laud Gary here for his idealism. He has a plan for the country that he, at least, believes will work, and he seems to have the United States' best interests at heart.

Donna Rice, too, comes off better than you might expect. She denies any wrongdoing. And as Hart campaign staffer Irene Kelly talks with Donna, we get the sense that she's much more than just a pretty face. Donna talks about graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She mentions her career achievements. She did everything she could, in fact, to make sure that she was taken seriously. The idea of now being considered as just a "bimbo" is incredibly vexing to her.

When Hart's campaign essentially throws Donna to the journalistic wolves, Irene—who was impressed by Donna's character—suggests the campaign release a statement on her behalf, something that suggests Hart cares what happens to her. (The suggestion is met with stunned, stony silence.)

Perhaps because of actor Hugh Jackman's engaging portrayal of Gary Hart, the movie sometimes seems to side with him—saying that journalists shouldn't be wasting their time on candidates' personal lives. But we do hear from one female Washington Post reporter who argues to her Hart-covering colleague that this stuff is important to examine. In a speech that presages today's #MeToo scandals, the woman suggests that men like Hart—men in positions of power—simply use and discard women. And if that's true, people should know about it. "As a journalist," she tells her colleague, "you ought to care."

Spiritual Content

As the scandal runs on, Gary's alleged affair is often framed in biblical language. One reporter asks Hart if he thinks "adultery is immoral." (Hart, after some hesitation, says, "Yes.") We also see a clip of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker during a press conference after Jim's own sex scandal comes to light.

Sexual Content

The film, obviously, is predicated on an alleged affair and the resulting scandal. A sexual dalliance isn't just present here: It's the point.

That said, the film presents the alleged affair (which both Hart and Rice, now Donna Rice Hughes, deny happened) with distance and decorum. We see the two meet on the deck of the infamous boat Monkey Business, with Gary growing more animated as he speaks with her. We watch Donna fly into D.C.—tracked by staffers from The Miami Herald to Gary's townhouse. What goes on beyond those doors, though, is a matter of conjecture and speculation: It's never shown on-screen.

Those close to Gary, though, talk about his womanizing ways. He's asked repeatedly about rumors of his alleged infidelities, both before and after his contact with Donna Rice. Gary is apoplectic about those questions, feeling that they're beneath the seriousness of both the political campaign and his own lofty ideals. He says that it's nobody's business what his private life looks like. "I care about the sanctity of this process whether you do or do not," he blusters. (It's an interesting use of the word sanctity, given how often that word is used within the context of marriage vows.)

Privately, though, Gary's deeply embarrassed. He apologizes profusely to his wife, Lee, for the position he's put her in. When Gary calls Lee to warn her of the scandal about to break, she's furious.

"The one thing I ever asked was that you wouldn't embarrass me," she tells him.

"I feel so stupid," he says.

"Good," she snaps. "It feels like you should."

She later tells him, more or less, that he should really take stock of what he's done and wallow in misery for a bit. And when Gary asks if Lee's going to leave him, she says, "Not now. Not yet. Maybe at some point." (The real Gary and Lee Hart are still married.)

Characters sometimes talk about the alleged affair and sexual antics in crude terms. Veteran journalists recall how past presidents slept around, as well as how reporters didn't publish anything about those infidelities.

We see women in bathing suits and arguably provocative garb. Gary talks with his college-age daughter, Andrea, about a cross-country trip she wants to take with a friend. They're getting some pushback from the friend's parents, who are concerned with the two sharing hotel rooms and, we learn, beds. Gary suggests that she try to convince the parents that it's a cost-saving measure.

Violent Content

None, but it's pretty clear that there are times when Gary would love to punch a journalist or two in the face.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 30 f-words and about 15 s-words. We hear "a--," "d--n," "h---," "p-ss" and "crap" as well. God's name is misused about half a dozen times, half of those paired with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused a dozen times. We hear someone say "retard."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Many characters drink wine and other alcoholic beverages. Some smoke, too. Gary buys a round of drinks for a table of reporters, and Southern Comfort is served. We hear references to cocaine use and a drug bust.

Other Negative Elements

Journalistic ethics are, in some ways, on trial here—perhaps more than Gary's alleged infidelity. The film suggests that the press collectively went full tabloid with this story, skulking in shadows and digging for incriminating evidence. At times, even the reporters themselves seem to feel guilty about their focus on Gary's private life, looking like guilt-ridden dogs that ate hamburgers off a kitchen counter.


The Front Runner is rated R, primarily for its harsh language. The movie revolves around the alleged sexual escapades of a political candidate, and as such it can feel pretty sleazy (as did the headlines and talk show jokes at the time). Those issues here are more or less self-evident.

What's more interesting is the movie's ticklish central question: When someone's running for public office, should their private lives be scrutinized?

At times, the film argues the answer to that question is no. It points to presidents past and is dismissive of their rumored philandering. The story also suggests that coverage of Gary Hart's private life marked a watershed moment in the culture, a shift away from legitimate journalism toward a more tawdry and tabloidy variety. Indeed, we see scenes involving Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post's legendary editor, fondly reminiscing about how not just wives, but journalists once looked the other way in stories like these.

Other times, though, the film suggests the answer to the question above is yes. One scene in particular rams home the point that politicians' personal lives do reveal important elements of their character, that private choices are relevant. In short, personal integrity matters.

Watching The Front Runner recalled for me another cinematic depiction of Ben Bradlee—the one in The Post, released last year. In that biopic, we see Bradlee and his journalistic colleagues publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers in 1971, coverage that presaged the paper's Watergate coverage a couple of years later. Bradlee talks about how cozy journalists were with politicians back then—how sometimes they'd look the other way. That was a mistake, he insists. "If we don't hold them accountable," he says, "then my god, who will?"

Accountability. It's a key word here. In Christian circles, we often find accountability partners to help ensure that we don't stray. We demand accountability from our children. Through community, we try to hold our sinful natures in check and aspire to higher standards.

But what about politicians? When we vote—especially when we're dealing with the highest office in the land, an office in which someone represents us in so many ways beyond just political ones—how much do we take that candidate's personal morality into account?

Oftentimes, how we feel about a politician's private life depends upon how we feel about the politician. If we support his or her policies, we don't much care about what happens in the boudoir. But as Christians, I'd argue that it should and does matter. When you're making promises to the country, the promises you make to others—especially to your husband or wife—are relevant.

Gary Hart gets very angry when reporters intrude into his private life. Yet he (like all politicians) exploits elements of his private life—which have nothing to do with policy—to advance his political career. When he makes his announcement in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, his wife and daughter stand by his side. They're a picture-perfect happy family, the image suggests. Never mind that it's not true.

For Gary to leverage his family for a photo-op one moment, and then to say it doesn't matter how he treats that family the next, well, that seems disingenuous. As someone tells him, "We can't choose the parts of a job we like." But Gary Hart wants to have it both ways.

And perhaps this thought-provoking dramatization of this complex story does, too.

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Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart; Sara Paxton as Donna Rice; Vera Farmiga as Lee Hart; J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon; Mark O'Brien as Billy Shore; Molly Ephraim as Irene Kelly; Chris Coy as Kevin Sweeney; Alex Karpovsky as Mike Stratton; Josh Brener as Doug Wilson; Tommy Dewey as John Emerson; Kaitlyn Dever as Andrea Hart; Oliver Cooper as Joe Trippi; Jenna Kanell as Ginny Terzano; RJ Brown as Bill Martin; Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee


Jason Reitman ( )


Sony Pictures



Record Label



In Theaters

November 9, 2018

On Video

February 12, 2019

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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