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Jason Reitman Looks Back at a Political Shift with The Front Runner

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

Jason Reitman at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “The Front Runner.”

Jason Reitman

Looks Back at a Political Shift with The Front Runner

By Jay S. Jacobs

Director Jason Reitman is known for taking on some pretty big subjects in his films. He took on lobbying in Thank You for Smoking. He set his sights on teenage pregnancy in Juno and corporate soullessness and greed in Up in the Air. He also looked at alcoholism and personal grievances in Young Adult and modern disconnect through the internet with Men Women & Children. Earlier this year, he took on post-partum depression in Tully.

Therefore, it is not a big surprise that he took on politics and tabloid journalism in his latest film – and his first movie that is based on a true story. Specifically, he took on the case of Gary Hart, the Colorado senator who was the odds-on favorite to become the United States President in 1988, before his campaign – and his career – was torn asunder by a political scandal after it was reported that he may have had an affair with a potential campaign worker, a former model named Donna Rice.

Up until that point in history, a politician’s personal life was considered sacrosanct by the media. However, even though both Hart and Rice have strenuously denied for over 30 years that anything has happened, Hart stepped away from politics only three weeks after the first whispers of scandal.

Jason Reitman at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “The Front Runner.”

Reitman told me at the Philadelphia Film Festival screening of The Front Runner that he felt it was an important turning point in modern politics.

“I’m like anyone out there,” Reitman said. “I wonder how the hell we got here. We all look back, trying to figure out when did this start? Well, this is that first moment. The first moment when a few journalists decided to stakeout a presidential candidate at his home. It’s the moment that tabloid journalism drove into the lane of political journalism.”

This was a sea change in journalism. For better or worse, previously the political media tended to respect the privacy of candidates and elected officials. News was considered a loss-leader – it was a public service, not a business decision. However, by the late ‘80s, tabloid journalism was on the rise, gossip shows like A Current Affair were on the campaign trails, and even legit newspapers like The Miami Herald (the newspaper which did the stakeout Reitman referenced) were willing to take more unconventional tactics to break a story.

“In doing so, took some of the control out of the hands of the editors of proper newspapers,” Reitman continued. “Ben Bradlee [the legendary editor of The Washington Post], we had this in the film and this is something Ben Bradlee really said, ‘If everyone else is covering this, if TV is covering this, if every other newspaper is covering this, how can we not cover this?’ His control over what stories were relevant got taken away. I think that’s a really important moment.”

It is a story that still resonates 30 years later.

“It’s funny, we wrote this movie in 2015,” Reitman explained. “It felt relevant in 2015. It’s now become a little too relevant. I can go with less relevance, frankly. It’s interesting, obviously the [2016 Presidential] election, we were shooting Tully when the election happened… And of course, the #MeToo movement came about in the last year, as well. So, that brought different context to everything we were talking about. I just want to further the conversation.”

Hugh Jackman and Jason Reitman on the set of “The Front Runner.”

The Hart story is relevant not simply for the ways that the political playbook has changed in the time since it happened – because, let’s face it, now the Hart “scandal” seems almost quaint in a world where no one even bats an eye when they find out that the President paid off porn stars hundreds of thousands of dollars for their silence.

However, even now the Hart story is still in the news. Just a few weeks before the release of The Front Runner – which is being released nationally on Election Day, Tuesday, November 6, Election Day, so people can go to vote before going to see the film – there was a story in The Atlantic about whether or not Hart was set up.

Word is the Lee Atwater – notorious Republican dirty trickster who had a change of heart when he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor in his late 30s and spent the rest of his life atoning to the people he hurt – apologized to Democratic operative Raymond Strother for torpedoing Hart’s chances at the presidency. Strother decided that the scab was too fresh and never told Hart about it until recently when Strother himself faced cancer – a fateful diagnosis that Strother has thankfully survived.

Reitman was of course familiar with the Atlantic story when we talked on the red carpet. “When you make a Gary Hart movie, anything Gary Hart-centered gets emailed to you,” he said. However, he is not sure that the news will drum up interest in the film.

“Well, perhaps,” Reitman allowed. “I mean, look, any news about the guy is going to bring an awareness. That said, when it comes to the relevance of this story, though I find the Lee Atwater story entertaining and interesting, I’m not sure if it’s important. It’s very on brand for Lee Atwater, but I don’t know if it really makes a difference.”

After all, although it is a mitigating factor, it doesn’t totally change the narrative of what happened.

“At the end of the day, Gary Hart met Donna Rice at a party and he invited her to his townhouse,” Reitman explained. “That’s a complicated moment for him, and his wife, and their marriage. The real question is, where do we all fit in this? Is this something that actually informs us as constituents?”

Hugh Jackman in “The Front Runner.”

Reitman’s interest in the whole story was informed by veteran political journalist Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. The book became the spine of The Front Runner, with author Bai co-writing the script with Reitman and Jay Carson. Reading the book, Reitman learned many things he never knew.

“I must say, I’m not a student of history, you know?” Reitman said. “I’m a student of movies.”

Therefore, he learned lots of things from behind the scenes – how the sausage was made, so to speak.

“Just the idea that the primary system only goes back to the ‘70s. I didn’t realize that,” Reitman explained. “Up until the mid-‘70s candidates were picked in back rooms by party bosses. Really, it was in the ‘70s that all of the sudden 12 different options were thrown at us every four years. Some governor from some state. Some congressman from another state. How the hell do we know who these people are?

“The responsibility fell on the shoulders of journalists to tell us: ‘Hey, this is who these candidates are.’ Of course, once you start down that road, the question is, what do you want to know?”

What we want to know was an important question to Reitman. Particularly because he realized that these were real people, with real lives, and what his movie said about their lives could affect them. In his previous films, the characters were fictional. He didn’t have to worry about how someone would react to what was said. This made him feel a special responsibility to deal with what happened fairly.

“I reached out to Gary Hart, to Donna Rice, to the whole campaign team,” Reitman said. “I wanted them to feel like they knew me, and they could reach out to me, so here’s my phone number. Someone saying, ‘I’m going to make a movie about your life, and I picked the worst week,’ that’s kind of a daunting thought. I tried to have as much empathy for them as possible. I just tried to treat them as human beings.”

Hugh Jackman in “The Front Runner.”

One of the most important parts of treating them like human beings was to find the best people to portray them. And Reitman feels he hit the jackpot for getting Hugh Jackman to play Hart.

“He’s just one of the great movie stars alive,” Reitman said. “I was thrilled I got the opportunity. Hugh is one of those actors whose heart just kind of beats out of their chest as an actor, whether he’s in Les Miz, or The Greatest Showman, or Logan. In this movie he doesn’t show that. In this movie he does something he’s never done before. He plays an enigma who you desperately try to understand. He brings us right up to the crack in the door, but he doesn’t let us in.”

Of course, it was important to Reitman that the film was not just looking at one character. He wanted it to be about the world surrounding him.

“I was trying to write a script not about Gary Hart, but from 20 different points of view: the campaign people, the journalists, the family members,” Reitman explained later, when introducing the film.

The Candidate by Michael Ritchie…. that was our north star,” he continued. “We wanted to make a movie that was hyper-realistic. At least three conversations happening at once at all times. That is constantly asking the audience what is relevant? What is important?”

This was something which was vital to Reitman. He didn’t want to make a partisan movie. He wanted a movie with lots of different entry points for lots of different points of view. He wants different people to take different things from the movie. If you want to relate to Hart, fine. If you want to relate to the journalists, great. If you want to feel for Donna Rice, or the campaign workers, more power to you.

Hugh Jackman in “The Front Runner.”

Reitman wants to open up a conversation with The Front Runner.

“It becomes an opportunity to talk about these things,” Reitman explained. “It’s a prism through which to have complicated conversations about the present. Right now, it’s really hard to talk about politics. We get into fights. You go on Twitter, you’re going to get your head cut off. It’s nice to have a story from 30 years ago that lets us talk about gender politics. [It] lets us talk about that line between our public and private lives. That can be so tricky to get into.”

Politics has changed so much since 1987, and perhaps it is advantageous to remember where it once was.

“We’re living now in a moment in which shame is the key word,” Reitman admitted from the stage. “If you are someone who experiences shame, then… you walk away from politics. If you are someone who doesn’t experience shame, not only do you stay in, but you thrive. Apparently, we have a system that favors the shameless.”

It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time there was not the antagonism between politicians and the media. The President did not call hard-working journalists “the enemy of the state” just because he didn’t like what they wrote about them. And, Reitman thinks, the Hart “affair” was probably the turning point.

“This is the moment the wall went up between journalists and candidates,” Reitman said. “Prior to this moment… candidates and journalists socialized. They knew each other. They spent all this time on the campaign trail together. They’d eat together. Because of that, they knew each other as human beings. In this very moment, it became the job of the press secretary to put a wall up and make sure that nothing like this ever happened again. Every moment is manicured. Every word coming out of the campaign will be gone over ten times….”

Of course, the change was not just on the politicians’ side. In a post-Watergate world, the rules had changed in journalism, too.

“In that moment, journalists were put in the position that they had to become real investigators. Remember also, the generation of journalists coming up after [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein… suddenly saw their job in a different light.”

The sad part is, had the whole thing never happened, the world may be in a very different place than it is. Whether you believe his story or not, Hart was a very smart political mind. Because of what happened, he has been on the sidelines for over 30 years.

“Gary Hart lives at the same address now as he did in 1987,” Reitman said. “He and Lee have been married for 60 years. He has written a dozen books. Under the Obama administration, he served as a special envoy for Northern Ireland. But, for the most part he’s stayed out of politics. He’s had a lot to offer.”

Hart was a very smart man, and way ahead of the curve on many subjects. On meeting Steve Jobs in 1981, he said that computers would drive the economy of the future. In 1987, he said the US was too reliant on oil, which would lead to our having to deal Middle East corruption and Islamic terrorism. In 2000, he famously warned President George W. Bush that the US was in danger of being “attacked by planes.” The warning fell on deaf ears, until the year later when his prophecy tragically came true with the World Trade Center disaster.

“The sad irony of Hart is a man prescient about everything – who could see around every corner for everything coming and for whatever reason – could not see what was happening right in front of his face. The country was saying: Your personal life matters. We need to know.”

Gary Hart did not believe they had the right to know. And, lots of people don’t. It takes a certain type of person to handle the scrutiny of an election – particularly for arguably the most powerful office in the world.

“Here’s the question,” Reitman asked the crowd at the screening. “Would a Gary Hart run today? When we look at the process that we’ve created, what kind of candidates do we just push out of the process? Who don’t even bother running? That’s what concerns me. With the kind of celebrification of the presidency, we’ll just get more [who won’t run]. In the ‘80s we had Reagan, we had an actor. By now we have this guy. So, I don’t think Gary Hart runs [today].”

This is to the detriment of the United States. We shouldn’t want to scare off our best and brightest. We shouldn’t be intimidated by intelligence. And, frankly, in the Trump era, can we really hold someone’s sexual background against them?

What has America lost by forcing Hart onto the bench?

“At this point, he’s in his early 80s,” Reitman said. “He’s exceptionally with it and knows everything that is happening in modern politics. He is on Russia, and the Middle East, and everything that is happening in this country – as much as anybody. I think it drives him crazy that he can’t offer what he wants to offer.”

However, what he had to offer is not what Hart is remembered for. He’s remembered mostly for a picture on a yacht named Monkey Business with a hot blonde in his lap. It may have been a natural part of tabloid culture, Reitman allowed. At the beginning the stories had a big photo of Hart with a small photo of Donna Rice in the corner. By the end, it was a big photo of Donna in a bikini with a small picture of Hart in the corner.

‘It speaks to who we are,” Reitman said. “We’re curious and we love stories. We can’t help but think of things as stories. This story had all the right things. It had a really good-looking gal. It had a boat with a funny name. It had this photo. So that’s how we remembered it. Because of that, this candidate – whether you like him, or you don’t like him, whether you think he should have been President, or you don’t think he should have been President – we kind of dismissed him in less than a week. That’s astonishing if you think about it.

“Particularly with the trajectory he has gone on for the last 30 years,” Reitman continued. “This is a guy who was 10 points ahead of George Bush and 25 points ahead of every Democrat. Had he become President, with what we know about him and what he knows about the Middle East, we don’t go into Kuwait. There is no Iraq war. We don’t launch Afghanistan. A lot changes. Perhaps.”

However, in looking back at the action of The Front Runner, all these things were yet to come. Politics can be a dirty profession, as can journalism, but many – if not most – people are drawn to it because they literally want to do some good for the world. Some succeed. Some don’t.

Which leads Reitman to this conclusion, “It’s a movie with no heroes and no villains, just people trying to do the right thing as the world is shifting under their feet.”

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: November 6, 2018.

Photos #1-2 by Deborah Wagner © 2018.

Photos #3-6 ©2018. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures. All rights reserved.

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