“I don’t think this is going to blow over,” Dixon tells him.
Slow going at first, “The Front Runner” derives much of its power from being considered within a wider context — specifically, the allegations and admissions that confronted subsequent candidates, among them Bill Clinton four years later and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the California gubernatorial race. Hart’s people cling to the notion that much of the public thinks the media has overstepped its bounds, but that doesn’t prevent his fumbling response from creating a media whirlwind that essentially swallows him whole.
Jackman sheds his claws and dancing shoes to create a sharp portrait of a man whose intelligence and political savvy suffers from a sizable blind spot when it comes to the questions suddenly dogging him. There’s one particularly good scene in which Hart watches Johnny Carson mock him during “The Tonight Show” monologue, providing a clear illustration of how quickly he went from presidential contender to punchline.
Well cast in even the smaller roles, “The Front Runner” feels fairly narrow in its appeal — calibrated (down to its Election Day release) to reach an audience that sucks up enough cable news to putty in the gaps.
Still, between the timeliness of the subject matter, Jackman’s anchoring presence and “The West Wing” style peek behind the political curtain, it’s an understated film with enough smarts, unlike its protagonist, to overcome its shortcomings and deliver a winning ticket.
“The Front Runner” premieres Nov. 6 in select U.S. theaters and expands to wide release Nov. 21. It’s rated R.