There was a time, before social media and cell phones, when a scandal took hours or even days to break publicly, and when a politician’s fortunes were perhaps not decided within seconds of being captured in a compromising photograph.
That was the case in 1987, when Gary Hart, a rising Democratic star, seemed all but poised to sail easily to his party’s nomination to face Ronald Reagan’s Republican successor in 1988. However, a notorious photograph, capturing Hart with his mistress, derailed his hopes within a month of the story breaking in April 1987, dooming Hart forever to ignominy and irrelevance.
The improbable story of the meteoric rise and swift fall of his presidential bid is told in the new film “The Front Runner,” directed by Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Thank You for Smoking”), with Hugh Jackman starring as the charismatic, though flawed, senator from Colorado.
“I think we’re discussing the same questions in this film that are part of the everyday conversation today,” Reitman said of his film during an interview in Washington, D.C., not far from where much of the action of “The Front Runner” takes place. “I think we are still trying to figure out who are these potential presidents, senators and justices as human beings. How do we find out what we need to know about their character [and] what flaws are we willing to put up with in a candidate?
“And that conversation is simply amplified” in 2018, Reitman said.
Reitman co-wrote the screenplay for “The Front Runner” with Jay Carson and Matt Bai, the latter of whom wrote a book about the Hart affair called “All the Truth Is Out,” published in 2014.
“I came to understand over time [things] that were repeatedly misremembered about the scandal that were not true, and that kind of haunted me as a journalist,” said Bai, who first began researching the Hart case in 2002. “Why did we misremember it, and what did we miss?”
Bai said that Reitman and Carson convinced him that the Hart scandal he covered in his book had a “cinematic nature” and would translate well to film. The three men’s screenplay weaves in scenes that would be unbelievable had they not been true, such as a moment when print reporters confront Hart in an alley, microphones drawn, to inquire about the mysterious woman whose door he was seen leaving.
“Adapting is tough sometimes because people aren’t willing to make the tough choices,” Carson said of the screenplay-writing process. “There are crazy things that happened, [but] a lot of them it doesn’t make sense to include because it’ll actually take you out of the story.”
Bai likewise points to a vignette he discovered in his research wherein Hart, with his wife by his side, essentially commandeers someone’s Jeep in order to escape the press.
“It’s so bizarre that it doesn’t even feel true,” he said. “The story is so rich [with] amazing scenes that we couldn’t include in the screenplay.”
Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga co-stars as Hart’s put-upon wife, Lee, faced with the unenviable choice of leaving her straying husband or remaining by his side as the media feeding frenzy descends on her family. Farmiga, who co-starred in Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” is joined in the cast by another Reitman company alum, J.K. Simmons, who also appeared in “Juno.”
Carson said he has enjoyed walking through audiences after the film has ended to gauge their reactions to the three-decade-old story.
“The great part about being a screenwriter is nobody knows who you are,” he said with a smile. “So unlike Jason, I can walk through a crowd and no one knows I had anything to do with the movie. So I get to hear really candid conversations about it.
“You’ll hear two people debating opposite side of the scene I wrote: Someone’s taking J.K. Simmons’s side of the debate with Hugh Jackman about whether” they should try to control the damage or not. “That’s really gratifying to see, and that’s what we hope the movie does.”
Reitman, Carson and Bai believe that looking 30 years back at how political scandal was covered in the late-’80s may help explain “how we got here” when it comes to the 24-hour outrage hurricane of cable news surrounding the current White House administration.
“What social media does is amplifies and polarizes the conversations around these issues,” Bai said. “It’s [pushes] journalists like myself to really have constructive conversations about when personal lives are relevant, when they’re not.”
“We came to this first of all because it’s just a gripping human story. It’s perfect drama,” added Carson. “We’re hoping we can start a conversation about why and how we ended up where we are today.”
Reitman said that he has already screened “The Front Runner” for Gary and Lee Hart, who reacted, Reitman related, not with a sense of reliving difficult times, but rather commenting on the technical and artistic aspects of his film.
“The first thing they do is react as if they’ve just watched a movie—they talk about how incredible Hugh Jackman is an actor before getting into the idea of philosophically what it’s like to watch a movie that portrays part of their lives,” Reitman said. “The loveliest moment was Gary asking, ‘Do I really talk like that?,’ and Lee responding, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how you speak.’”
“The Front Runner” comes out today in theaters (check your local listings)