To me, one of the most alarming things about politics right now is the disconnect we feel from our fellow citizens: You want quality x in a politician? Really? You admire quality y, but loathe z? You care deeply about this issue, but not at all about that one? We don’t just disagree – we’re appalled.
Into this fray arrives Jason Reitman’s new drama, The Front Runner. The film details the true story of the five days in 1988 when Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), a U.S. senator from Colorado, went from being the presumed next president to dropping out of the race after news broke of his extramarital affair with a woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). We see the scandal from multiple, overlapping points of view – Hart, his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), his campaign manager (J.K. Simmons), the lone woman on his staff, the reporters covering his campaign. And the film asks multiple, overlapping questions: What would you do if you were the staffer/reporter/wife/etc.? Is a candidate’s personal life the public’s business? Are his flaws indicative of his character, and would they affect his ability to govern? Should we be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done? That the film leaves open those questions will madden some and intrigue others.
Reitman, 41, is no stranger to reputational ambiguity. As a writer/director, he shot out of the gate with three films that were universally lauded: Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air. His next films, including Young Adult, Labor Day and Tully, produced more divisive reactions. His persona does, too: He is alternately described as smart or overconfident, friendly or needy. I like talking to him – to me, he always seems sincere and enthusiastic – but I suspect he empathizes with Hart on multiple levels.
In a hotel room after The Front Runner premiered at The Toronto International Film Festival this past September, Reitman and the film’s co-writers – Matt Bai, a journalist and screenwriter who wrote a book about Hart in 2014 called All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid; and Jay Carson, a politico turned producer on Netflix’s House of Cards – had an overlapping conversation of their own. They stressed the value of asking questions in our era of immediate, uninformed, unshakable opinions.
Reitman: “The Gary Hart story is one that you hear and immediately form an opinion on – and presume that it’s the only opinion, until you start having a conversation with somebody else. It has all this connective tissue with 2018: What defines a scandal? What happens to the people inside a scandal? When I have a lot of questions, that’s usually a sign that it’s something I want to make a movie about. But with this, I came out with more questions than I had going in.”
Carson: “We were committed to making a movie not about a sex scandal, but about a number of human beings stuck in difficult situations, grappling with their own moral compass. We don’t have good or bad guys in this movie. We have people who are struggling to make the right decision, or the best decision among a number of bad decisions.”
Bai: “Barry Goldwater once called Hart the person of the highest morality he’d met in the Senate. But he becomes synonymous with abject immorality for this one incident. So we ask the question, ‘How much context can we afford people to be people?’”
Reitman: “And where does that intersect with entertainment? And our desire for entertainment?”
Bai: “This movie was conceived and written well before [Donald] Trump was president. But 1988 does mark the beginning of treating politicians like celebrities, entertainers. And treating campaigns like reality television.”
Carson: “Pre-1988, the rule was, ‘These [adultery] stories are never covered, ever. You can’t, you never should, no matter how bad.’ After 1988, the rule is, ‘These stories are always covered, always, no matter how minor.’ Neither of those is right. We – voters, politicians, journalists – should be exercising our judgment on a case by case basis.”
According to Bai, three factors came together to make Hart’s story ignite: the surge in the number of political reporters after the Watergate scandal; the advent of satellite news vans, which allowed reporters to broadcast live, on site, and the 24-hour news cycle; and the rise of second-wave feminism. When I mention the use of female characters in The Front Runner – there’s one prominent woman in a newsroom and one on Hart’s campaign, and they clearly represent the Woman Angle – all three men hastened to assure me that was deliberate.
“We were interested in the emotional burden that is put on women during a scandal," Reitman said. "Specifically, if you’re the one woman in those rooms. Not only do you have to figure out your own ideas, but you have to represent your entire gender. That’s not an accident – that’s an idea we were curious about.”
To get both the journalistic and political worlds right, Bai and Carson were on the set every day, offering advice on everything from how a reporter writes interview questions – on a legal pad or spiral notebook? Numbered or in categories? Do you cross them off as you go? – to how callers in phone banks talk to voters, to how political staffers make sure they’re not quoted on television (they swear in the middle of every sentence). During lunch hour, Reitman and the writers would screen films with the crew – films about politics, such as The Candidate (“Our north star,” Reitman said) and The War Room, but also 1980s films such as Working Girl and Broadcast News, to get the period feel.
When The Front Runner was ready to screen, Donna Rice was the first person Reitman showed it to. “I had the most empathy for her,” he said. “She really had her life taken from her. She’s been treated like an object or a joke, and has not been able to outrun that.” In the film, we don’t meet Rice “until her life has been broken,” he continued. “The audience has to deal with its expectation of what you thought you were going to see” – a sex kitten on a yacht called Monkey Business – “and now what you are seeing, and how does that make you feel?”
Reitman also flew to Denver to show the film to Gary and Lee Hart, which he called “the scariest screening of my life.” Afterward, everyone went out for hot chocolate, and Hart offered his take: Although the film was hard to watch, it did get closer to the truth. Or at least, some of the truths.
Thirty years after the Hart scandal – with a U.S. President whose crude comments and extramarital affairs do in fact reveal his personality, although that doesn’t matter to his base – getting closer to the truth is getting harder all the time.
Special to The Globe and Mail