Bill Burr is one of the biggest names in comedy. His blunt, loud, and furious tirades are often so ridiculous that it becomes increasingly hilarious to see how the comedian tries to justify his points. Despite his somewhat fiery appearance on stage, Burr has proven to be a much more than his persona. The veteran stand-up in recent years has been building quite the impressive acting resume as well, with credits including The King of Staten Island, Breaking Bad, The Mandalorian, Reservation Dogs, and his own projects, F Is for Family, and Old Dads. His performances in The Mandalorian and Breaking Bad in particular have shown that Burr can slip into different characters that don’t feel anything like his personality on the stage. In 2018, he starred in Jason Reitman‘s underrated American political drama The Front Runner as a journalist named Pete Murphy, and the hilarious comedian makes you forget that he’s funny.

What Is Jason Reitman’s ‘The Front Runner’ About?

Hugh Jackman in The Front Runner
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Directed by Up in the Air and Juno filmmaker Jason Reitman, the underrated political thriller The Front Runner examines the groundbreaking, and largely influential presidential campaign by the presumed Democratic nominee Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) in 1988. Hart had been the runner-up to the Democratic nomination behind Walter Mondale in 1984, and many experts within the party believe that had he received the nomination, Hart would’ve beaten President Ronald Reagan in the general election. Hart is seemingly destined for success in the 1988 primaries; his straightforward, charismatic way of speaking had the ability to make politics feel understandable (and engaging) to an audience of moderates. Hart could both fire up the Democratic Party and attract those who didn’t have much interest in politics to begin with.

Despite Hart’s seemingly simple path to victory, rumors swirled around about his reported marital problems. The notion of a major political candidate having an affair may seem like a basic news story by today’s standard, but in 1987, it was a major headline. Two senior reporters, A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) of The Post and Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) of The Miami Herald, pursue Hart about his alleged affair with his young staffer Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Fielder ends up listening in to a phone call between Hart and Rice that reveals details of the alleged affair, all with Pete Murphy (Burr) listening in.

The scene in question does a great job at identifying the different roles that each of the journalists play, and how their decisions affect one of the most consequential elections in modern American history. Murphy sees the opportunity to pursue Hart as nothing more than a simple way to gain gossip on a major news story, and Burr’s slovenly, awkward appearance suggests that Murphy never expected that the story would have any major political ramifications. He seamlessly slips into the role of a journalistic skeptic for a scene that benefits from his experience in comedy; Murphy teases Hart about the details of his relationship, and jokes about how implausible the candidate’s presumed innocence is given the facts of the case.

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Burr adds a touch of humor to a scene where Hart couldn’t be any more vulnerable. He’s at the peak of his political career, and should the cards fall in the right direction, he could end up changing the scope of American politics after nearly a decade of conservative leadership. On an emotional level, Hart also realizes that if journalists have discovered what he’s done behind closed doors, his wife Lee Hart (Vera Farmiga) will learn the truth as well. The thought of being embarrassed in front of his family is almost more unbearable than the prospect of losing the primary nomination. To have Burr laughing about the whole affair to his face makes Hart feel like an embarrassed child, showing how easily the situation went out of control. Once on top of the world, Hart is now forced to defend his honor to someone like Burr’s Pete.

‘The Front Runner’ Reminds Us That Bill Burr Is an Impressive Actor

BillBurrFrontRunner (1)
Image via Sony Pictures

Someone as seemingly inconsequential as Burr’s character could end up changing history under the right circumstances, even if he seems like the most unlikely one to do so. What feels like a brief piece of bit casting on Reitman’s part shows the power an “average guy” such as the one Burr embodies on stage really has in major elections. It’s fascinating to imagine how radically different the world would be had Hart’s affair not been discovered. Would he have become President a few months later? Would he have been re-elected in 1988? How much different would world politics be had Hart been in office? Would the world be safer, more secure, or any less depressing than it is now?

Following this line of thought may make the viewers a little unnerved, which is perhaps why The Front Runner performed so poorly upon its initial release. Maybe releasing a cynical film about the general public’s indifference to actual political issues on Election Day 2018 was a bad idea. Burr could have played Murphy as an over-the-top caricature of a reporter that is only hoping to befuddle and humiliate Hart, but the film isn’t attempting to lionize either character. The Front Runner takes the seemingly unheard of risk of not picking a side, and presents both Murphy and Hart as complex, flawed people. Although he added a touch of his personality to the role, Burr becomes lost in an interesting depiction of Murphy. Both Burr and the film itself deserve more credit for taking a more nuanced approach to a hot button issue.

The Big Picture

  • Bill Burr’s acting skills shine in The Front Runner, proving that he can play characters that are completely different from his comedic persona.
  • The scene where Burr’s character, Pete Murphy, interacts with Gary Hart adds humor and vulnerability to the story, highlighting the impact of the journalist’s actions on the political landscape.
  • The film takes a nuanced approach to the political scandal, presenting both Murphy and Hart as complex, flawed individuals, and showcasing Burr’s ability to handle a more serious role.

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