Phones ring off the hook while several conversations are heard simultaneously. Chaos and complexity hit audiences as lights dim and the movie starts rolling. In Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman’s latest political drama “The Front Runner,” journalism and politics converge, blurring the lines between a political candidate’s personal and public life.
Starring Oscar-nominee Hugh Jackman (“The Wolverine,” “The Greatest Showman”) as the charismatic former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), “The Front Runner” depicts Hart’s rise and fall during the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Hart was expected to win by an overwhelming majority, but after an alleged extramarital affair with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), he was forced to drop out of the race and leave politics.
Hart’s affair isn’t unique — former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were let off the hook for their sexual scandals. However, in Hart’s case, journalists were staked outside his home with cameras and confronted the nominee in an alleyway in the middle of the night. When news of the affair broke, for the first time in history, the public scrutined a politician’s personal life through the media.
The Phoenix attended the debut screening of “The Front Runner” at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) and spoke with Reitman about the political drama and its meaning in today’s political climate.
Reitman co-wrote the script for “The Front Runner” with journalist and former New York Times Magazine political correspondent Matt Bai and strategist Jay Carson, who has served as a senior staffer for political officials, including former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York). The film is based on the book “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” by Matt Bai, which analyzes how Hart’s scandal shaped political and media cultures.
“The Front Runner” aims to be as real and tangible as possible, according to Reitman. Audiences should feel as though they’re amid the chaos Hart and his advisers faced through the use of close-up camera shots.
“This was a script that was written on the backs of [Bai and Carson’s] experience,” Reitman said. “[The film] was meant to put you right there on the campaign trail, whether you’re on the newspaper floor or on the campaign bus. The idea was for it to be hyper-real.”
Featuring a vast ensemble that includes J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash,” “Spiderman”) as Bill Dixon, Hart’s no-nonsense campaign manager and Vera Farmiga (“Bates Motel,” “The Conjuring”) as Lee, Hart’s wife, Reitman’s film forces audiences to make decisions about the importance of each conversation and narrative.
Reitman said people aligned themselves with different perspectives in the movie and he wanted show as many viewpoints as possible; from Mamoudou Athie’s (“Sorry For Your Loss,” “The Circle”) character as a young, heartful journalist at the Washington Post to Molly Ephraim’s (“Paranormal Activity,” “Last Man Standing”) character as Irene Kelly, a campaign strategist who’s forced to question her admiration for Hart, the bases are loaded.
“That’s why we made a movie with 20 main characters, so you can kind of hook your line to anybody,” Reitman said. “There are so many ways to watch this story, and we wanted to give everyone the opportunity to have a different way in.”
Reitman said he heard an episode of the Radiolab podcast depicting the story of Hart’s campaign and was inspired to create “The Front Runner.” Reitman said he couldn’t believe there was a moment in recent history when a presidential candidate wound up in an alley with journalists from the Miami Herald only to walk away from politics a week later.
“Everyone was terrified, and no one knows if they’re crossing some line in our history. And they were,” Reitman said.
In “The Front Runner,” journalists and politicians are depicted as companions, going out for lunch, grabbing coffee and getting to know each other — a different image compared to President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as “the enemy of the people.”
“When that wall went up, it became press secretaries manicuring ever statement that came out of the campaign, and journalists were kind of forced into the position of being investigative journalists who need to somehow get the scoop and sneak in and find out who these people were,” Reitman said.
While “The Front Runner” strays from Reitman’s usual family drama narrative featured in past films including “Tully” and “Up In The Air” and veers toward politics, the story of a marriage lies at the heart of the film.
Although being in the public eye was a result of Hart’s campaign, Hart and his family faced a new form of scrutiny after the public was informed of Hart’s actions — all a result of investigative journalism.
Hart’s campaign set in motion a recurring discussion among the nation, drawing attention to a politician’s scandals as well as his political platform.
“It is the beginning of the conversation about character and it’s the beginning of the conversation about what is relevant to the voters,” Reitman said. “The conversation has gotten out of control in 2018, and we’re at a point now where we just don’t even know how to talk about it anymore.”
Of the various narratives featured in “The Front Runner” — from those of the journalists who want to capture Hart’s true essence to Hart and Rice’s own stories — Reitman said one of the most important aspects of the film is the question of relevance.
“The big question on ‘The Front Runner’ is when did [Hart and his wife’s] private marital problems become our business?” Reitman said. “And is it worthwhile for it to be our business? … We always have to ask ourselves, when we talk about sex, what are we not talking about?”
“The Front Runner,” rated R, will be released in limited theaters Nov. 6 and across the country Nov. 21.