JK Simmons

The Front Runner

07/01/19

It’s 1988 and Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the voice of hope for a new generation of American liberals. He’s the clear front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and young people are queuing up to work on his campaign, relinquishing their jobs and moving away from their families, believing they can help to secure real change. Hart has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in four key areas – economics, education, employment and ethics – and the charm and charisma to pose a threat to the incumbent Reagan-led Rebublicans.

But he’s naïve about the extent to which he will be held personally accountable to the public, believing his private life irrelevant to the political sphere. So, when he has a casual and ill-advised affair right in the middle of this most crucial campaign, the resulting press exposure completely kills off his career.

Jason Reitman’s film focuses mainly on this moral conundrum: where do we draw the line? Does it matter if politicians betray their spouses if they’re steadfast in their duties to the state? Or can we infer from their domestic infidelities a sense of how they will treat us, the people that they serve? Does the press have a duty to focus more on policies than peccadilloes? What matters most, in the end?

We’re not really offered any answers here and, while I applaud the lack of sensationalism, it does mean that there’s a certain lack of drama too. The storytelling is so nuanced and subtle that it verges on the dull. It seems a little dated too: in this era of Trumpian excess, an extra-marital fling seems almost too quaint to care about. Where are the porn stars and the Russian oligarchs, the pussy-grabbing and the bogus charities? Ah, maybe that’s the point. Have the tabloids so inured us to scandal that we’re unable to see when it crosses into something truly worrying?

There are some strong performances here. Jackman, of course, excels in the lead role, and Mamoudou Athie and Molly Ephraim stand out as the journalist and intern who, respectively, witness their idol’s fall, forced to recognise reluctantly both the limitations of the man and the demise of their Democratic dream. But Vera Farmiga (as Hart’s wife, Lee) and JK Simmons (as campaign manager, Bill Dixon) are criminally underused, and the whole film feels as if it needs a shot of caffeine or adrenaline.

In the end, this just isn’t compelling enough to make the trip to the cinema worth the effort. Close, but no cigar.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Whiplash

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29/1/15

‘It’s all about this kid who plays drums in a jazz orchestra…’

Broken down to its basic plot elements, Whiplash sounds like something you’d actually pay money to avoid. But don’t be misled, because this is one of the year’s most gripping films, featuring a stellar central performance from JK Simmons that has made him hot favourite to lift this year’s Oscar for best supporting actor. As for the jazz element, well it probably helps if you like the music, but it’s by no means essential.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer based at New York’s top music conservatory. Like all the other musicians there, he lives in the hope of being ‘spotted’ by their top tutor, Mr Fletcher (Simmons) and when he’s finally offered the chance to sit in with the big man’s own orchestra, Andrew senses an opportunity to make his mark on the world of music. His quest to be ‘the best’ is not so much an ambition as an all-encompassing obsession and he’s prepared to give it everything he’s got, even when it leaves him with bruised and bleeding hands and even when it means giving short shrift to his hapless girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But he soon discovers that Fletcher is not the most nurturing of tutors – on the contrary, he’s a self aggrandising, bigoted, foul-mouthed sadist who will observe no boundaries when it comes to pushing his proteges to achieve their best. Andrew’s likeable father, Jim (Paul Reiser) can only watch helplessly as his son is put through the wringer.

There are two superb performances at the heart of this story. Teller plays the buttoned-up (and actually not allthat likeable) Andrew with great skill, and it’s to his credit that you care deeply about what happens to him; but make no mistake, Simmons owns this film from the moment he steps into shot. An actor formally known for playing a range of affable nice guys (think of his easy going Dad in Juno) he’s made a startling transformation. He is mesmerisingly repellent, a snarling, brutal martinet convinced of his own superiority. You’ll hate him, you’ll want to punch his image on the screen, but at the same time, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

In case you’re thinking this all sounds a bit gloomy, take heart: there’s a climactic set piece where Andrew gets to strut his stuff behind a drum kit that can only be described as thrilling. Whiplash is a little cracker of a movie and if Simmons does triumph at the Oscars, it will be thoroughly deserved.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney