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The Front Runner

More than 30 years ago, the Democratic Party had a show horse, a 41-year-old senator, both serious and studly, to challenge the post-Reagan Republicans. Gary Hart of Colorado was tested in the political fires of the 1972 race as the campaign manager of George McGovern, then, at 39, became a promising senator steeped in national security and environmental affairs. After a failed presidential bid in 1984, he became his party’s clear front runner by May 1987, only to have his promise crushed by a scandal concerning an alleged affair with a young woman. That mostly forgotten episode about our electoral politics has now been revisited by writer/director Jason Reitman in “The Front Runner,” a film that carries resonance for our own current frenzied politics.

After a brief prelude, “The Front Runner” plunges us into the febrile atmosphere of the 1987 campaign, with Hart, all great hair and silver-tongued delivery, appearing to have the Democratic Party’s nomination. His ascension, however, is thwarted when journalists of the Miami Herald find that he may have consorted with a young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), first aboard a yacht, “Monkey Business,” then at his townhouse on Capitol Hill, while his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) remained at the family home in Colorado. The outraged Hart—who confronts journalists stalking him in DC—insists there is nothing in the alleged “affair” and denounces them for invasion of privacy. The “sex scandal” becomes a national obsession, and the senator tries to defend himself against an ever-more voracious media. But he cannot and ultimately withdraws from the race. The private has become the political.

The film aims to show this tipping point in American politics when a politician’s private life became fair game, when “character” became a defining element of a candidacy, and when an expanding mass media could overwhelm a politician’s life. Reitman, and his co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson, trace this sea-change by concentrating less on the individual Hart and instead focusing judiciously on his campaign itself and its cast of characters.

Hugh Jackman’s performance, in fact, is a rather opaque one, representing the candidate at a distance; earnest and attractive, yes, but unknowable to his public. The grit of his campaign comes in the sundry staffers he has around him, players like campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), assistant Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) and eager staffers like Billy Shore (Mark O’Brien) and Joe Trippi (Oliver Cooper), his true believers who dream of a political breakthrough with their paragon boss.

The human side of this story comes from Hart’s family, Lee and his daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). The unwitting “villains” of the story are the media, both members of The Miami Herald, led by Bob Martindale (Kevin Pollak), and The Washington Post, where reporter A.L. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), becomes, almost accidentally, his journalistic nemesis. All the above performers, and dozens of others, combine to produce in convincing detail a believable campaign story, an ensemble that clicks.

There are several standouts. Worthy of special mention is Farmiga as a loyal yet skeptical critic of her husband who confronts the wounded Hart in a terrific showdown scene. Also there is Simmons as the hard-bitten Dixon, profane but passionate, Paxon as the sincere yet naïve Rice, and Ephraim as the steadfast back-up to her boss. Paxon and Ephraim, in fact, have one of the best takes in the movie. Just after Rice’s cover has been blown to the media, the two women sit in a bar as Donna nervously tells of her relationship with the senator and how desperately she wants a role in the campaign, while Irene, acting as Rice’s minder, patiently, humanely hears her out while knowing full well that all Donna’s dreams will be crushed. It is an exquisite two-fer in a film filled with smart scenes.

(The film is rated “R” runs 113 mins.)

Hugh Jackman (center) plays Gary Hart in “The Front Runner.”
Photo by Frank Masi ©2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jason Reitman on "The Front Runner"

Director Jason Reitman was on hand for a preview of “The Front Runner” in DC in mid-October and addressed the audience. He quickly emphasized that “this film is not about Gary Hart but about the 20 people around him,” i.e. staff, advisors, and hangers-on. Further, he said, it is less about Hart than “it is about the rest of us” who might be fans of a political candidate. He added that he did not want to do a biopic but rather a campaign film. “We watched ‘The Candidate’ (a Robert Redford film of 1972) and that became our North Star.” The film was much less from Hart’s point of view and more “looking over Hart’s shoulder.” “I wanted the audience to identify with their own character.” He also carefully varied the film’s pacing, using what he called a “frenetic, nervous shooting” for the bustling campaign sequences and holding on longer shots for exchanges between characters.

Getting the Donna Rice figure right was very important for Reitman. “She’s the character that I had the most sympathy for,” the director said, “because people were so dismissive of her.” He purposely held off showing Rice fully, obscuring her face, for example, when Hart meets her on the “Monkey Business.” She is not shown fully until a crucial interview sequence “when we first see Donna, and the camera just sits on her.”

Reitman noted that he had come to DC twelve years before to shoot his lively comedy “Thank You for Smoking” when he found “the city’s atmosphere was light; very different from today.” Asked about doing satire these days, Reitman at first wondered out loud if it’s possible then said that for this film he “tried to get the details right.” In this sense, he said even “the background actors were crucial, all their costumes and activities” helped the film to feel more specific.

With some apprehension, Reitman and his team showed the finished film to some of its principal personages of the film3. The filmmakers thought the real protagonists might be wary of viewing it, but Reitman said he was surprised because “their reactions were much more filmic, not personal”—they were able to distance themselves. After Rice screened it, Reitman said “Donna was moved by how the film showed her.” As for the Harts, he reported that “the senator asked ‘Do I really talk like that?’ and his wife Lee countered with ‘Yes, you do.’”

Director Jason Reitman addresses audience at "The Front Runner" premiere in London.
(November 2018)

Green Book

The movies love an odd couple; dozens, if not scores, of films have explored the opening friction and the eventual connection between two disparate characters. The latest, and it is a most satisfying one, is “Green Book,” a road movie showing how, in 1962, a lug from the Bronx and a Jamaican jazz pianist roamed the American South in a weeks-long concert tour. Viggo Mortensen as the tough guy and Mahershala Ali as the pianist carry off their contrasting roles with, respectively, raw charm and taut grace.

The set-up is simple. A nightclub bouncer, Frank Vallelonga (Mortenson)—better known as “Tony Lip”--needs a job and hooks up, somewhat implausibly (although this is based on a true story), as a chauffeur for an erudite pianist, the real composer and performer Don Shirley. Their first encounter is a job interview at Carnegie Hall, where Dr. Shirley (Ali) resides, nicely presenting the gulf between the two men. Shirley’s tour will take him and his high-toned jazz trio for their first bookings in the South, still seriously segregated. Segregated enough that Tony must bring along the “Green Book,” a cautionary listing compiled for African-American travelers of where they will be welcome in the South.

The film then becomes a road picture that takes us through the vagaries of their travels, where they encounter casual racism, blatant bigotry, appreciative audiences, and themselves. They fence, they bicker, they bond. They ultimately contribute to each other. Tony loosens Dr. Shirley up and protects him bodily in tense stand-offs and during breakdowns, while the latter introduces the former to artistic genius then also helps Tony to write touching letters to his wife Dolores (a lovely Linda Cardenelli). There is a delicate, and sweet, ending.

Is it predictable? Yes. Is it sentimental? Yes. Is it corny? Decidedly no--because the two leads bring dimension, sympathy, and novelty to their roles. And those roles are intriguing in that they nicely flip some stereotypes of the period. Mortenson, as an goombah with a seventh grade education and insensitive to African-Americans, comes to appreciate and admire the skills and taste of a talented black man, enough so as to become genuinely protective of him. Ali, as an über-competent musician, comes to appreciate fried chicken and Little Richard through his animated driver, enough so as to fully trust him. Their vastly different worlds at first collide and then, with time, blend, as we would hope more cross-racial relationships might.

Peter Farrelly, best known for his goofy comedies (“Dumb and Dumber,” , etc.), directs “Green Book” and co-wrote its screenplay, along with Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga—Tony’s son and himself an actor. Here Farrelly proves he can also do drama, getting past the goofy to the grave and the gracious while effectively creating a decent simulacrum of the early Sixties South. This is not only a “feel-good” movie, but a feel right one.

(The film runs 130 mins. and is rated PG-13)

(November 2018)

Left to right, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in the road movie “Green Book”.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Can You Ever Forgive Me

Melissa McCarthy, proud portrayer of the loudmouth and practitioner of the pratfall, takes an intriguing new tack in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” playing a wily fraudster. It turns out she makes a convincing charlatan, clever enough to take in experts in the autograph collecting trade.

Based on an autobiography, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of Lee Israel, a New York writer of celebrity biographies (Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, etc.) who’s well has dried up by 1991. Her shabby West Side apartment is behind on the rent, and she has only a feline for company. “I’m a 51-year-old woman who likes cats better than people,” she states.

Trying to pitch her latest effort (a bio of comedienne Fanny Brice), Lee gets strong pushback from her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who sourly suggests that Israel seek another line of work. Trolling a library book on Brice, she discovers an original letter written by the actress, which she tries to sell to a local bookshop run by Anna (Dolly Wells). Advised that the autograph is sales worthy, she is also told that the text is anodyne and would sell for more with some distinctive element. Enticed by the prospect, Lee confects a fake—and clever—postscript, which she peddles for serious cash.

Thus, she begins inventing (on various typewriters) cunning letters from famous authors, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, inter alia, and receives comfortable cash payments to bolster her life and her ego. A chance meeting with a gay lay-about, Jack Hock (Richard T. Grant), in her local watering hole proves positive in that he encourages her in her fraud and becomes a drinking buddy. The ruse bolsters them both, until it doesn’t, when one collector questions the authenticity of one of her notes. Feeling vulnerable with her normal sources, she enlists the daffy Jack to stand in for her. Their continuing scam effort does not go well...

The film, directed by Marielle Heller, is pitched down, both in its muted actions and its amber to brown tones, as befits the subject of a failing drunk living out a life at the typewriter and hanging out in saloons. Yet she has Jack Hock, personified trippingly by Grant, a vagrant will-of-the-wisp, a garrulous Brit up for a main chance or a lark, but utterly irresponsible and exhibiting the attention span of a fly. When Lee gives him the simple task of looking out for her apartment for a few days, you know he will mess up big time. His principal gift in life—which Lee comes to appreciate—is being a good bar mate.

McCarthy’s comic persona here is caustic and sardonic, appropriate to a woman who has always been alone (and preferred it that way) and now sees her livelihood threatened and her creative self quashed. A particularly poignant display of self-awareness comes when she testifies at her own trial, both recognizing her crimes yet still viewing them as offering the most inventive writing of her career (“I’m not copying, I’m creating”), a realization that the real Lee Israel came to recognize in herself. This tough gal may not be laugh-out-loud funny but should win many wry smiles.

(Now in theaters, the film is rated “R” for language and runs for 106 mins.)

(October 2018)

Melissa McCarthy (as Lee Israel) and Richard E. Grant ask for another drink in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.