Film review of The Front Runner

February 2, 2019

Film review of “The Front Runner”, by Don Perlgut, for AJN 31 January 2019

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman and Jay Carson; starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons and Alfred Molina

****

“The Front Runner” tells the true story of the 1988 Kennedy-esque US Presidential candidate, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (played by Australia’s Hugh Jackman), whose campaign – he was the Democratic front runner for the nomination at the time – was overwhelmed by the story of an extramarital affair. This was the first time that tabloid journalism and political journalism merged, changing the nature of US national politics and celebrity. The sordid nature of that event seems quaint by comparison with subsequent sexual escapades by Bill Clinton and Donald J. Trump. The implicit question that the film never answers is why did Hart’s candidacy fail, whereas Clinton and Trump (so far) prospered?

Although Senator Hart is now a footnote in history for all but the most ardent devotees of American politics, the film’s neatly written script successfully resonates with the current “Me Too Movement”. Here was a brilliant man and attractive politician who simply could not see that his playing around outside his marriage would have political, moral and personal consequences: “It’s not 1972, it’s not 1982,” one of his advisors tells him. “The public cares about this.” Despite his brilliance, Hart – the film implies – lacked empathy for the lives of the women he was with. The public judged him badly for this.

The film’s Jewish director Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman and grandson of Holocaust survivors, has established a stellar career of dramatising “of the moment” issues, from corporate human resource management (“Up in the Air”) to teenage pregnancy (“Juno”) to big tobacco (“Thank You for Smoking”).

Reitman does a great job with an outstanding cast that includes J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager, Vera Farmiga (Oscar-nominated for “Up in the Air”) giving a perfectly controlled turn as Hart’s wife Lee and Alfred Molina as “Washington Post” editor Ben Bradlee. Jackman – an excellent physical match for the good-looking Hart – provides a strong performance. But the most touching acting comes from Mamoudou Athie, who plays a fictional African-American “Post” journalist who acts as the film’s moral centre: his character’s scrupulously fair but firm pursuit of the truth in questioning Hart is truly memorable.

“The Front Runner” is based on the book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”, written by Jewish journalist Matt Bai, who was once shamed by evangelical Christian and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich into admitting that he had not gone to synagogue that week. A large number of Jewish actors appear in minor but memorable roles, including Kevin Pollak (who has played more than 20 Jewish movie characters) as an editor of the “Miami Herald”, Ari Graynor as a “Post” reporter, and Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Molly Ephraim and Josh Brener as campaign aides.

Although “The Front Runner” never reaches the heights of classics of the political bio-pic genre like “All the President’s Men” (Nixon) or “Primary Colors” (Clinton) or even the (currently screening) “Vice” (Dick Cheney), this film is a highly engaging, sharply directed and crisply edited slice of our current political and cultural moment. It neatly illustrates the engagement and co-dependency between the media and politicians.

When the head of CBS News said of the Trump campaign in 2016, that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, he captured something that screenwriter Matt Bai says began with Gary Hart: concern for a “tsunami of triviality” has helped the rise of Donald Trump. Hart foreshadowed this in his withdrawal statement that closes the film, paraphrasing his idol Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.”


Australian Jewish News dominates NSW Multicultural Media Awards

July 31, 2016

The Australian Jewish News (AJN) – the newspaper that has published my film reviews for more than 25 years – has dominated the NSW Multicultural Media Awards.  The paper won five categories at the 2016 Premier’s Multicultural Media Awards in Sydney last week.  The paper’s wins were for:

  • Best investigative story: Joshua Levi, “Communal Lobby faces fraud investigation”
  • Best image (pictured below): Noel Kessel, “A walk for peace”
  • Best news report: Joshua Levi, “Royal Commission into child sexual abuse”
  • Best use of social and digital media, Facebook and Twitter coverage of the “Royal Commission into child sexual abuse”
  • Best print publication

The paper also had a finalist nomination for “Best long-form feature”, Zeddy Lawrence, “Lest We Forget: Centenary of Anzac”.

The newspaper continues to provide high-quality, professional journalism to the Jewish communities around Australia, with an extraordinarily high rate of readership in the Australian Jewish community.

Noel Kessel(photo above from Noel Kesel, that won the “best image” award)


A Companion to Australian Media now in print

December 30, 2014

The long-awaited book, A Companion to Australian Media, is now in print and available.  Edited by Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley, it is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing (North Melbourne).  I am one of more than 300 contributors to the “Companion“, and wrote the entries on film reviewing and educational media.  I joined an august group in this massive project, which is the result of many years of work by Professor Griffen-Foley, as the result of an Australian Research Council Discovery grant.

The book retails for $88.00 (Aust):  with about 415,000 words and 543 closely packed pages (including an impressive 37 page index), it’s great value.  First entry:  “A Current Affair”; second entry is “Phillip Adams”; and the last entry is “Zines”.

You can listen to Bridget Griffen-Foley discussing the Companion, on the podcast of ABC Radio National’s “Media Report” program, broadcast on 9 October 2014.

A photo of the book cover is below.

Companion to Aust Media cover


Companion to the Australian Media coming soon

June 4, 2014

I am proud to be a contributing author to the upcoming “A Companion to the Australian Media”, to be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing and released in September 2014.  It’s edited by Professor Bridget Griffin-Foley (Macquarie University), and has an eminent editorial board.

It also has a whopping 479 entries totalling more than 415,000 words written by 300 contributors, including Quentin Dempster, David Salter, Eric Beecher, Tim Bowden, Mark Day, Gerald Stone, John Faulkner, Graham Freudenberg, Ross Gittins, Gideon Haigh, Sandra Hall, Jacqueline Kent, Valerie Lawson, Sylvia Lawson, Peter Manning, Bill Peach, Nicolas Rothwell, Julianne Schultz, Margaret Simons, Graeme Turner and Richard Walsh.  I wrote the entries on “film reviewing in Australia” and “educational media in Australia”.

An article by Peter Coleman about the “Companion” appeared in the May 31, 2014 edition of The Spectator.

Here are extracts from the official first “blurb”:

At this time of rapid and revolutionary change in modes of communication, A Companion to the Australian Media provides the first comprehensive, up-to-date historical account of Australia’s press, broadcasting and new media sectors.

Arranged in an accessible A–Z format are nearly 500 articles focussing on both the history and contemporary practice of media corporations, individuals, industries, audiences, policy and regulation since the launch of Australia’s first newspaper in 1803.


Journalism in the digital age rapidly evolves – latest insights in Australia

November 10, 2013

There is possibly nobody else in Australia who has tried to monitor, capture and report on the changing nature of journalism in the digital age than Margaret Simons. A veteran journalist (The Age, The Australian), for some years she lectured in journalism at Swinburne University of Technology and is now director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

She also founded and continues as the guiding light of The Public Interest Journalism Foundation (declaration: I am on the Foundation’s Board – I believe strongly in its mission), an organisation that “promotes and enables innovation in public interest journalism”.

Simons’ latest book (as editor) – What’s Next in Journalism? New-media entrepreneurs tell their stories (Scribe) has just been published, and is as definitive as snapshot as you can get – in print, no less – on the rapidly evolving digital media landscape. With a genuine explosion of material on this topic, the big value of What’s Next in Journalism is that it encapsulates what’s happening here in Australia, all within a globally aware context.

Here is an extract from the book.

And while you are on the Public Interest Journalism Foundation website, have a look at a well-written blog post by Dr Tim Senior, a General Practitioner who works in Aboriginal health, who responds to an outstanding recent public lecture by Katharine Viner at University of Melbourne last month (October) entitled, “The rise of the reader: journalism in the age of the open web”.

Whats Next in Journalism book cover


Teaching Feature Writing – Ahladeff’s Martin Luther King Article

August 27, 2013

Feature writing is not like news writing. The structures and styles are both different, with rules of their own.

What writing students often don’t realise is that in the feature article the most important parts are the opener and the closer – unlike the classic news article with its inverted triangle structure.  You need a strong hook at beginning and a “pot of gold” ending.  And short sentences help. A lot.

Yesterday’s The Sydney Morning Herald (26 August 2013, p. 19 of the paper edition) included a good example of classic feature writing by Vic Ahladeff, the CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.  In an article entitled “Kings dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson”, he writes about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Others have noted this:  it’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.

But Ahladeff’s article takes one angle:  that of African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s role in encouraging King to use the “dream” theme.

So after teaching feature writing to university public relations and journalism students twice in the last 18 months (University of NSW and APM College, North Sydney), I find this article to be an excellent example for students.  Here’s why.

Ahladeff’s opener:

If anyone warrants a footnote in history, it’s Mahalia Jackson. (10 WORDS, CATCHY) If anyone deserves a modicum of recognition for what transpired before 250,000 people crammed at the foot of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering afternoon 50 years ago, it’s surely Mahalia Jackson.

Comment:  First sentence, catchy.  Ten words.  Second sentence 31 words, really too long, however he gets away with it because the sentence is evocative and he uses the repetition technique – mirroring the first sentence – at both the beginning (“If anyone deserves …”) and the end of the sentence – “it’s surely Mahalia Jackson”.

His second paragraph:

Yet her story remains unsung, her involvement in one of the greatest speeches of all time unheralded.

Comment:  One sentence, which runs 17 words, and it is the “real catch”, placed just where the article most needs it.  He throws the reader’s attention to the rest of the article.  Wow, the reader thinks.  Really?  Tell me more.  What was her involvement, they ask?

There’s lots of good stuff in the middle.  His quotations are nicely chosen.  I particularly the following part, because it develops its own pace, leading towards the final payoff of the “dream”:

Mahalia Jackson, one of the supporters clustered near him, spontaneously shouted: ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King droned on. ”Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Jackson again, more urgently: ”Tell them about the dream!”

He paused …”

And then the closer, the “pay-off”:

King was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for an oratorical masterpiece whose eloquence reverberates 50 years later.

Comment:   First sentence of the paragraph is only five words long.  Shocking.  Assassinated.  Yes, we knew.  But still.  This is the first mention of King’s untimely death.  Second sentence – nine words, the connection is made again – she actually sang at the funeral.  Third sentence – she died four years later – oh goodness, she died too.  “The queen of gospel” is a nice phrase.  The final sentence is a little long but it reads very well.  It contains only two real adjectives – “unforeseen” and “oratorical” – both of which work well and do not duplicate their nouns, as so many adjectives and adverbs tend to do.  The “50,000” and “50” numbers also create a parallelism.  The words “eloquence reverberates 50 years later” give us a sense of history.  Overall, the sentence makes us feel good about ourselves in that we are, somehow, a part of that “reverberation” and a part of that “history”.

Convinced?  Read the full article, especially since it is available online free in its entirety (at least as of Tuesday 27 August, morning in Sydney).  It may not be freely accessible for long, given the recent massive changes in newspaper business models.

Here is a copy of the “South Pacific edition of this week’s Time magazine, Volume 128, number 9:

Time magazine cover MLKing 26Aug2013

Want to read the full speech:  go to the US National Archives (note PDF document):

*****

(Declaration:  I know Vic Ahladeff, and he was the editor of The Australian Jewish News for many years while I wrote film reviews for that paper.)


US Election Watch Down Under

November 6, 2012

All power to The Australian newspaper for continuing to give such coverage to US affairs and the election (better than Fairfax – The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age).  If only they had represented what was really happening.  Belatedly, The Australian has acknowledged reality, with correspondent Brad Norington’s article in today’s paper (6 November, entitled “The nine states deciding a president as Barack Obama leads”.

In this article, Norington notes that “Barack Obama has a slight edge over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the closing days of the US presidential election campaign” and predicts a win for Obama with 332 electoral college votes (out of 538).

On Monday 5 November, remarkably The Australian also published (both print and online) unedited “vote for me” viewpoint articles by both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.  This gives further evidence as to why some Australians are confused about which country they live in – when American political leaders appear to be directly asking us, here in Australia, to vote for them.

Despite consistently pro-Republican coverage,The Australian‘s editorial on Monday 5 November refrained from endorsing Romney, concluding the following:

American voters have to decide whether Mr Romney would be any better. There is no clear answer. He has been a far better candidate than expected and, contrary to Mr Obama’s studied disdain, appears no less qualified for the job. Like Mr Obama, however, he has done little to inspire confidence that he has the solutions the economy needs. He speaks of a 12-point plan that will create 12 million jobs, but details are scant. His 20 per cent tax scheme is unfunded and his opposition to the profligate Obamacare looks suspect in view of a similar scheme he set up during his governorship of Massachusetts.

In its coverage on Tuesday 6 November (remember – still Monday in the USA), The Australian‘s correspondent Brad Norington finally acknowledged the reality of this election, with the lead election article entitled “Polls and Superstorm Sandy put Barack Obama in front” .  As recently as last week The Australian was predicting a comfortable win.  What changed?  Actually, very little.  The reality of not appearing foolish is what happened.

By the way, the best Australian predictor for the Presidential race:  Malcolm Mackerras – writing in, yes The Australian on October 27, 2012 predicted:

On November 6 Romney will win all the states taken by McCain in 2008. He will also win North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and the Nebraska second district …. Consequently, I predict Romney will win 235 votes in the electoral college. That would leave Obama winning the election with 303 votes.

I agree.

Let the counting begin.


US Election down under: how Australia’s media outlets are covering Obama versus Romney

November 3, 2012

The American presidential election continues to fascinate and confuse Australians, with all major media outlets providing extensive coverage.  But what kind of coverage, and how are Australians viewing the close Obama versus Romney match-up?

First, let me acknowledge the biases:  I am a strong Obama supporter, and have been ever since he arrived on the national political scene in the USA in 2004.  That said, I was pleased that Romney became the Republican nominee for President, not because I thought he was the weakest candidate in the Republican field, but because I believe he was the best.

I will spare you my analysis of the other Republican candidates, but it was very clear (to me, at least) that Romney was the adult leader amongst them.  And in this year of persistently high unemployment in the USA, the Democrats were uniquely vulnerable.  If the Republicans were to win, I wanted it to be Romney – and not one of the others.

Sure Romney has problems, well-articulated by others.  He has chosen Paul Ryan, an ultra right-wing running mate who reportedly once held Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as his favourite books (hey, I did too – but I was back in high school in the 1960s).  Romney started a moderate Republican, but swerved sharply to the right in order to obtain the Republican nomination, and then – lo and behold – he quickly moved back to the centre at the first televised debate with President Obama.  This apparently took Obama by surprise, but certainly appealed to many undecideds in the centre.  What does Romney stand for?  Many have speculated:  go to Zerlina Maxwell in the New York Daily News (August 29, 2012, “the human Etch a Sketch”), Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker (October 23, 2012, “Romney’s Double Vision”) or The New York Times (editorial: “Mr. Romney Changes His Mind, Again”, July 5, 2012).  And perhaps Romney himself does not know.

But the purpose of this post is to review how those of us living in Australia are viewing the election.  Yes we are, in a word, fascinated.  I have already written about the slanted pro-Republican coverage by the national News Corp-owned paper The Australian.  As of today (Saturday 3 November), this shows no sign of abating, with a full coverage on page 11.  Their columnist Brad Norington ascribes Obama’s possible margin to “Superstorm Sandy” – (“President enjoys a storm surge as Romney beached”) despite consistently average high poll averages.  And the paper shows a map taken from The Wall Street Journal (copy below) which certainly undercounts the President’s likely winning states.  (You can try looking this up yourself at http://projects.wsj.com/campaign2012/maps/, but that page did not load for me – it may for you.)

Compare that map to the one on Nate Silver’s 538 blog on The New York Times website:  does it look different?  It sure does?  How can you explain that?  Lots more blue (Democrat) in the Silver version, isn’t there?  By the way, as of early Saturday morning New York time, this blog now predicts Obama’s chance of winning the election at 83.7%, +9.3 since October 26.  Here is Silver’s simple summary in response to those who deny that Obama is ahead:

Obama’s ahead in Ohio.  A somewhat-more-complicated version:  Mr. Obama is leading in the polls of Ohio and other states that would suffice for him to win 270 electoral votes, and by a margin that has historically translated into victory a fairly high percentage of the time.

Tell that to The Australian.  Not yet, though.  Because today’s paper also featured an article by Karl Rove (former George W. Bush adviser and key organiser of the political action committee American Crossroads) also taken from The Wall Street Journal and entitled “Sifting through the numbers for a winner”.  Rove asserts that Romney “maintains a small but persistent polling edge”.  And what poll does he quote?  Yes, you got it – Gallup, the major Republican-predictor “outlier” poll of the race.  Other coverage in The Australian:  a more realistic article by Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan (“Obama’s Debt to Sandy”) that acknowledges Obama’s lead but ascribes it to the superstorm – “Hurricane Sandy is, politically, the October surprise that just may have saved Barack Obama’s presidency”.

Hmmm, do I see the makings of a conservative rationale going on here?  Something that goes along the lines of “Romney would have won except the storm got in the way.”  Nate Silver – the pollster of pollsters – does not believe that.  Nor do I. But it may give conservatives comfort (“we were robbed” … by the storm).

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Nick O’Malley, page 15 “Spend and bend as poll goes down to the wire”) takes a more analytical approach.  He writes of how everyone is “trying to get a true sense of the two campaigns’ end strategy” and notes that “The paths they have plotted across the swing states do not fully match the two sides’ rhetoric.”  Both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age then come up with the reality:  Peter Hartcher (Political Editor) has a column entitled “Obama is storming home”.  He states it pretty much up front:

Barack Obama is likely to win. In spite of everything. In spite of the ruinous state of the economy, in spite of the record federal deficit, in spite of the fact that most Americans think their country is on the wrong track, the chances are that Obama will be re-elected on Tuesday for four more years.

The Australian ABC has a whole website devoted to the election.  So does the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney  Even The Australian Jewish News (which I write film reviews for) has gotten into the act, calling last week’s edition (November 2, 2012) a “special edition” of “America decides”, with a full seven pages of coverage (few of which are actually on their website).

You can believe that everyone will be attempting to analyse this campaign for an awfully long time to come.  I can’t imagine such interest in the USA for any overseas election – nor in Australia about any election outside other than the USA.

Back on August 28, 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher wrote about how so many Australians get confused about the USA, noting the following story:

In the days after the terrorist attack on the US in 2001, a small group of Australian primary schoolchildren held a solemn candlelit moment of mourning and reflection for the dead. It was a touching scene.  But when questioned, it turned out that the children thought the attacks on New York and Washington had occurred in Australia.”

The context:  that day, the paper released the results of a poll showing that “an overwhelming 72 per cent of Australians would vote for the Democrats’ Barack Obama if they had a vote in the US presidential election while a mere 5 per cent would choose the Republicans’ Mitt Romney.”  Apparently support in Canada and Europe is even greater.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?


The Australian newspaper’s selective coverage of American voting intentions

October 29, 2012

Living in Sydney, Australia, I usually find “The Australian’s” international news coverage to be refreshing and valuable, despite the paper’s adamantly right-wing rhetoric on many topics.

But the paper’s readers are being let down by its North American correspondent Brad Norington’s coverage of the American presidential election (“Obama does the business on jobs”, Monday October 29, 2012, p.12).  Norington continues to quote the Gallup Poll figures, which indicate Romney ahead of Obama by five or more percentage points.  This is seriously misleading, and when Obama wins next week – as he most likely will – readers will wonder why they kept thinking Romney was in the lead.

Both Nate Silver in “The New York Times” and Mark Blumenthal in “The Huffington Post” have comprehensively shown that the Gallup Poll figures have been the most skewed “house effects” towards Romney of any of the many American polls, and are almost certainly incorrect.  Yet Norington persists in quoting the Gallup figures first – and sometimes solely.  This selective quoting indicates either a political (pro-Republican) bias or an ignorance of the real state of the American voting intentions. In either case, it does both the paper and its readers a major disservice.

I attach below two tables taken from Blumenthal’s June 18, 2012 analysis (“Race Matters: Why Gallop Poll Finds Less Support for President Obama”).  The first one shows how the Gallup systematically undercounted Obama’s approval percentage for a full year from May 2011 to June 2012.

The second one shows how Romney’s percentage of voters has been systematically higher in Gallup than almost all other polls during the period August 2011 to June 2012.  (Click on the figures below to expand them.)


Public Interest Journalism Foundation

December 21, 2011

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation here in Australia – of which I am a Board Director – has just issued its latest online newsletter, and it’s worth checking out.  Included are links to the address by Jay Rosen (NYU journalism and media), who was an international guest of the Foundation at “New News 2011” conference in August 2011 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Click here for the newsletter.