The unravelling of US presidential hopeful Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 is faithfully recorded in The Front Runner, but the film labours once it starts demonising the press. Meanwhile,John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are superb in Stan & Ollie
The Front Runner (15) ***
Colette (15) ****
Stan & Ollie (PG) ****
The Upside (12A) **
Dramatising the political implosion of 1988 US Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart, Up in the Air director Jason Reitman’s latest film The Front Runner is an intriguing and frustrating exploration of the moment licentious behaviour in politics became fair game for newspapers forced to compete with the increasingly sensationalist television news. Setting out its stall with a virtuoso four-minute tracking shot showing the chaotic way press and politics collide (the scene is the media scramble to cover Hart’s surprisingly strong showing at the 1984 Democratic Convention; the rest of the film takes place over a three-week period in the 1988 campaign) what follows is intriguing for many reasons, and frustrating mainly for the sanctimonious air it starts to give off as its protagonist chastises the fourth estate about its conduct.
This is something of a shame given that much of the film comes across as a well-crafted, Altman-esque attempt to present a kaleidoscopic view of complex and thorny issues. Played by Hugh Jackman, Hart is presented as a political idealist and straight-shooting maverick, a man whose ability to “untangle the bullshit of politics” (as his campaign manager Bill Dixon, played Reitman regular JK Simmons, puts it) becomes entangled with his own naive, some might say arrogant, belief that the press should accord him the same discretionary privileges they did the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson 20 years earlier. Instead, to his mounting horror and disgust, he discovers that years of hard work to get him into a position to not only win the Democratic nomination, but take the presidency, can be undone in a matter of weeks following allegations of an affair.
A dizzying first half captures the rush of the campaign trail and the film is at its best in these moments as it cuts between the Hart campaign and the newsrooms of the Miami Herald and the Washington Post, whose editors and journalists (among them Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward) are shown reckoning with the changing nature of the business in an era still reeling from Watergate. There are welcome scenes too that humanise Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the woman at the centre of the controversy; while the few scenes given over to Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), also do a great job of capturing the complications of a 30 year relationship as strangers take it upon themselves to be outraged on her behalf.
And yet the film’s subtle demonisation of the press – despite the odd pointed if anachronistic-sounding line about Hart abusing his power and position – can’t help but leave a bit of a sour taste, especially as it attempts to rehabilitate him. His Jefferson-riffing speech about the American people one day getting the kind of leaders they deserve may seem like a prophetic warning about the current administration, but it ignores the fact that Bill Clinton weathered worse storms than Hart to take the presidency just four years later or that Barack Obama managed a two-term presidency without being dogged by any personal scandals. That the film has been made with the best of intentions is in little doubt, but the fact that it criticises the press for not turning a blind eye to personal indiscretions makes this particular Hollywood effort feel as out of touch with the current moment as Hart turned out to be with his.
Set in Belle Époque-era France, Colette provides Keira Knightley with a deceptively rich role as the eponymous French novelist whose work was initially published under her husband’s name. Directed by Still Alice’s Wash Westmoreland, the film may come on like a stilted costume drama of the sort that Knightley has occasionally starred in herself (think The Duchess, rather than her more interesting work with Joe Wright on the likes of Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina). But the film soon reveals itself to be a more subversive and outré exploration of sexual politics and gender identity as Colette takes charge of her own career and love life. Dominic West is a riot as Colette’s louche husband, but Knightley owns the film with a brilliant performance as the free-spirited author who pushes back against patriarchal oppression.
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are perfectly cast as Laurel & Hardy in Jon S Baird’s late-years biopic Stan & Ollie, a gentle, melancholic look at the beloved duo long after they’ve fallen out of favour in Hollywood. Catching up with them as they’re reduced to undertaking what seems like a humiliating British tour of regional music halls in 1953, the film explores the complexities of their partnership and the blurring of their on- and off-screen personas as an indifferent-at-first public start turning up in droves to see them. What’s good about Baird’s film is that it doesn’t use their reignited popularity to deliver a bogus triumphalist message; it’s more interested in pulling the curtain back on the ephemeral nature of stardom to reveal the fine mess talented performers can get themselves into as they try to negotiate its pitfalls.
Revolving around a billionaire quadriplegic (Brian Cranston) and his ex-con caretaker (Kevin Hart), The Upside is a faithful remake of the 2015 based-on-true-life French hit Intouchables – so much so that all its dated interracial comedy and pandering sentimentality is just as grating without subtitles. Nicole Kidman classes things up a little, but not enough to endure 130 minutes of Cranston and Hart’s odd-couple shenanigans. ■