February 2019

Arts & Letters

The spectacle of a political scandal: Jason Reitman’s ‘The Front Runner’ and Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Loro’

By Shane Danielsen
New films about ’80s presidential hopeful Gary Hart and Italy’s controversial Silvio Berlusconi both miss the mark

See the leader: (weak) chin tilted upwards, eyes narrowed to slits. Boastful, derisive. He nods with kingly satisfaction – at applause, at chanted slogans – but rarely smiles. Most tellingly, he never laughs. Because he measures every interaction strictly in terms of its value to himself, because he regards other human beings as disposable and interchangeable, nothing they say can amuse him.

There he is onscreen, in his element. Not governing (he finds his official duties baffling or tedious, or both), but campaigning, preening before an audience of willing dupes. Scared suburbans, sour evangelicals. The retrenched members of extinct industries. People who’ve never in their lives been mistaken for anything close to a “winner”, yet who, as the American Century recedes, now find themselves aligned with greater power than they could possibly imagine. All without having to temper their worst instincts. (On the contrary: the louder and more vicious, the better.) And it’s for this reason, this unexpected validation of their own shittiness, that they will support him unconditionally, perhaps even unto death.

Hard to imagine, under the drab reign of Scott Morrison, but politics has now been well and truly subsumed into the Society of the Spectacle, its performative rituals entirely congruent with the emergence of authoritarian-nationalist leaders like Trump, Duterte and Bolsonaro. Per theorist Guy Debord: “Although fascism rallies to the defense of the main points of bourgeois ideology which has become conservative (the family, property, the moral order, the nation), reuniting the petty-bourgeoisie and the unemployed routed by crisis … it is not itself fundamentally ideological.” Rather, Debord suggests, it’s “a violent resurrection of myth which demands participation in a community defined by archaic pseudo-values: race, blood, the leader” (emphasis mine).

The crisis, now, is very much with us. The king is mad. Even so, for American cinema, this has resulted less in the passionate intensity for which one might have hoped – Hollywood is yet to have its Hour of the Furnaces moment – than in a kind of wan nostalgia for simpler times. Watergate, for example, and the fearless, principled truth-telling captured in All the President’s Men. How charming that misadventure seems today, with its quaint insistence upon bipartisan outrage, its faith in legislative checks and balances, its steadfast belief in the indispensability of the fourth estate. But instead we have films like Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner (in cinemas now), a study of one badly flawed man and the era he helped usher in, and a tea so weak it tastes of barely anything at all.

In April 1987, Democratic senator Gary Hart was rising steadily in the polls, increasingly tipped to succeed Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. He was young-ish (50, to The Gipper’s 76), good looking, quietly charismatic, with a strong grasp of domestic policy and a wonkish, faintly academic persona.

He was also, increasingly, suspected of conducting a number of extramarital affairs, indiscretions that, if proved true, threatened to torpedo his candidacy. Denials were issued; still, the rumours persisted. Finally, exasperated, the senator issued a challenge: if anyone really believed this nonsense, they were welcome to tail him, and witness for themselves the mundane tasks that occupied his days. They would soon grow bored, he added.

In fact, The Miami Herald had already been doing precisely that, having a few weeks earlier received an anonymous tip that Hart was conducting an affair with a woman from that city. And the incredible thing is Hart almost certainly was screwing around: on May 1, 1987 Herald reporters observed the candidate and an anonymous woman enter his D.C. townhouse at about 11.15pm, while his wife was away in Denver, and not emerge until almost 24 hours later. So it’s hard, with the luxury of hindsight, to view his offer as anything but an act of breathtaking self-sabotage. It’s like Archduke Franz Ferdinand handing Gavrilo Princip a loaded pistol. (Hart was also photographed with a woman on his lap on a chartered yacht actually named Monkey Business – proving once again that, when it comes to US politics, truth often leaves fiction trailing in the dust.)

You might think The Front Runner is about the self-inflicted ruin of one man’s ambitions, and how character equals destiny; it is not. Despite its title, it’s actually more about the press’s role in the emerging scandal, and the moment when sensationalism replaced substance in reporting. (Or when the public’s need to know overtook editorial discretion, depending on where you stand on these things.) It’s about politics as entertainment, and the growing irrelevance of policy, and how we got to our current state – the dismal, hectoring Now in which we currently find ourselves.

Reitman has essayed this kind of thing before: Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Up in the Air (2009) each tackled the dark side – the true face, one might say – of American corporate culture. Both films trafficked in a kind of knowing faux cynicism, leavening their outrage with a droll, we’re hip to this tone. A few points shy of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, admittedly, but enough to make the medicine go down.

The Front Runner is less satirical, but also less successful. Its script, by political journalist Matt Bai and former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson, is as knowing as that pedigree would suggest, and Stefan Grube’s editing is razor sharp. The problem resides mostly in Reitman’s direction. To his credit, he’s at least trying something different. Clearly inspired by Robert Altman (the film plays, at times, like a mash-up of Nashville and Tanner ’88), Reitman mimics some of the late master’s techniques: the layered, overlapping dialogue; the roaming camera, occasionally drawn from the focus of a scene to some stray bit of business happening at the edge of the frame.

But, perhaps as a result, there’s a lack of focus to the enterprise, a random, scattershot quality. Altman accumulated detail not because he was bored or distracted, but because he was boundlessly curious. He patiently teased out connections – between people, incidents, settings – that would deepen and enrich the social portrait he was trying to create. Reitman’s roving eye, by contrast, feels merely aimless and speculative: catching everything for fear of missing something. And the dialogue sounds like talking points, each “overheard” line landing with a thud.

The director’s inattention does, however, allow his cast to shine. Having seen Logan, in which he was so ripped he looked (to borrow Clive James’s immortal description of Arnold Schwarzenegger) like a condom filled with walnuts, I find it astonishing that Hugh Jackman’s upper body can even fit into a normal suit. Yet here, as Hart, he looks convincingly human, despite the burden of a regrettable hairpiece. His accent wobbles a little, but he projects a wary intelligence and, later, a spluttering, high-handed outrage, the furious indignation of one who may be deceiving only himself. He’s lent strong support by two of America’s finest character actors: Vera Farmiga, as his tired, longanimous wife, Lee; and J.K. Simmons, a Reitman regular, fiery as ever as Hart’s impassioned campaign manager, Bill Dixon.

If, like most people, you haven’t caught Simmons in Counterpart (currently screening on SBS), you should remedy that oversight at once. That series is about parallel realities, and beneath the skin of Reitman’s drama lies an alternative history of its own – call it Counterfactual. Had the Democrats’ strongest candidate not imploded before the 1988 primaries, and George H.W. Bush not succeeded Ronald Reagan, would America have launched Operation Desert Storm? Without Bush père in the White House, there would have been no George W., which likely means no Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in the cabinet – and thus, possibly, no takedown of Saddam Hussein, no invasion of Iraq, no doomed, protracted forays into Kabul and Baghdad and Sana’a … One could go on. All impossible to prove, of course, but highly tempting to contemplate.

Another politically themed film opened last month: Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro, his long-in-the-making study of Silvio Berlusconi. Sorrentino is a bore, and Loro little more than a 150-minute music video, an enervating slog that illuminates precisely nothing about Italy, Il Cavaliere, money or power. Nevertheless, it may well be the more pertinent political movie of the two, since it is pure spectacle, subordinating finicky details such as characterisation or narrative to a string of gaudy, pervy set-pieces, Eurodisco-fuelled tableaux in which the writer-director becomes almost irrelevant. He’s like the single guy at the orgy, jerking off on the sidelines while the action proceeds.

I never liked The West Wing, mostly because, notwithstanding Aaron Sorkin’s more egregious faults – his reflexive misogyny, his consistently shitty taste in music – he betrays one of the key principles of being a writer: he’s impressed by rather than suspicious of power. With its pantheon of wise, fundamentally decent men (and endlessly supportive, inevitably klutzy women), all gravely doing The Right Thing, the show not only hymned a notion of good governance that never existed beyond its creator’s fantasies, it also betrayed Sorkin’s own yearning to be on the inside of influence, a player.

Sorrentino is the same, only worse: a scold none-too-secretly in love with what he purports to despise. Trump, you sense, would have his number; even the dimmest of bullies, after all, can smell a supplicant. They say they hate me, he thinks, slumped in front of the television screen – the only place he feels fully real – but every one of these sons-of-bitches wants to be me.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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