Jason Reitman: Politics of The Front Runner

February 3, 2019
Before he was in the eye of the storm himself for directing the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot, the filmmaker spoke to us about his love letter to ‘70s filmmaking, The Front Runner starring ‘our own’, Hugh Jackman.

It’s ironic that Jason Reitman has been crucified (and celebrated) online following the recent announcement that the Ghostbusters franchise (which his father Ivan helped to invent, mind you) will be going back to its male-driven ways. Reitman’s latest film to get release, The Front Runner, is all about the true story of US presidential hopeful Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), and the discovery by the media that he was having extramarital affairs. It didn’t matter that he was the best candidate for the job, his career as a politician was over.

How old were you in 1987?

I was 10, so I don’t remember the story the first time around. I think in ‘87 I was more curious as to where the Back to the Future trilogy was going, than I was about politics. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I heard this podcast about the Hart scandal. That was my introduction to it and I just found the story fascinating. I just couldn’t believe that it actually happened.

Having heard that podcast, did you immediately think it would make a good movie?

Immediately. It felt like a movie. Here you had the next President of the United States in an alleyway in the middle of the night with three journalists, and nobody knew what to do because no one had ever been there before. This guy went from the next President to, a week later, leaving politics forever. That felt like a movie to me. I bought the book [All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid) that Matt Bai wrote that the podcast stemmed from and reached out to him. He had started writing with a guy named Jay Carson and the three of us became a trio. Matt, who had written for New York Times Magazine over five presidencies and Jay Carson, who had been the Press Secretary for Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean and worked with many Senators who are currently in Congress, the three of us became an interesting group. Such different life experiences that all informed the movie in a different way.

What do you think it was about that scandal at that time? Had there been nothing like it before in American politics?

Matt Bai wrote a whole chapter about this in his book, about what lead to 1987? Why that was the perfect moment. 1987 is the same year as the Fawn Hall/Oliver North scandal, the same year as the Tammy Faye Bakker scandal. There was something about that moment. I think you have the creation of these satellite trucks that allowed for broadcasts from anywhere, 24-hour news cycle. You had CNN giving out satellite phones to their journalists. This is not about the daily news, it’s about the minute-by-minute news. It is the year that A Current Affair goes on television, so it’s the moment where gossip news jumps from print to TV. You have a generation of journalists coming off of Woodward and Bernstein, who grew up watching these investigative journalists take down a President and then be portrayed by movie stars. You have this different sense of the role of a journalist and you also have journalists who are coming off of the 1970s, when the American primary system was invented.

This is the first time in American politics where, rather than party bosses picking candidates, you had primaries where voters were presented with a dozen choices of politicians. It could be a mayor from Indianapolis, a governor from South Carolina and a congressman from Oregon. It was like, we don’t know who these people are. That responsibility fell upon the shoulders of journalists to tell us who they were as people, which of course raises the questions of, ‘What do you want to know about these people? How personal do you want to get?’ There was a lot of things that led to this moment, when you suddenly had a guy who was this brilliant candidate. Smart, charismatic, prescient, great ideas. But also had a firm belief in the line between public and private life, right at the moment when the American public was going, ‘No, no, no. We want to know who you are as a person’.

Mamoudou Athie – as journalist AJ Parker – taking directions from Jason Reitman

In a way, it was the moment that politics became celebrity, or vice versa.

Yeah, Matt’s book said, ‘The week America went tabloid’. I think that’s a great caption. What’s hard to watch with Gary Hart is a guy who is so thoughtful and prescient and can really see around every corner and yet somehow, just cannot fathom the American public’s interest in his personal life. He genuinely can’t.

It’s only gotten worse, with an even more fervent interest in the private lives of politicians with the internet and everyone having cameras in their phones.

So many things happened simultaneously. You now have a direct line between politicians and their constituents through Twitter. You also have a wall that went up between politicians and journalists, where … We explore this in the movie, they used to spend social time together. They used to get to know each other as people, and they don’t now because the Press Secretary is managing every minute that a journalist and a campaign person would ever spend together. Obviously, gossip has gone out of control and our candidates have become completely indecent monsters.

When writing the movie, were you thinking that this would be relevant to the current situation in US politics?

Honestly, what’s weird is that we wrote this movie in 2015.

Pre-Trump, basically.

Oh, yeah. We wrote this movie during the Obama presidency with the presumption that Hillary Clinton was the next President. I went and directed Tully, and as we finished Tully the presidential campaign happened. We went into production with a new President, and every time we think, ‘Oh well, the movie couldn’t become more relevant’, you have the Kavanaugh hearings… It’s just one step after the next.

Do you feel like it’s just going to get worse in some ways? There are lessons to be learned from what The Front Runner shows us.

It doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon. My only hope is in the younger generation, which seems fed up with all this nonsense. But look, The Front Runner is a movie that has 20 points of view and each audience member sees it differently. Some people really see it over Gary’s shoulder, but most people see it over the shoulder of the journalist, or over the shoulder of the women in the midst of the scandal. Whether it’s Donna Rice, or Lee Hart, or Irene Kelly, or Ann Devroy at the Washington Post. There’s a lot of ways into it and I find, even watching audience members, they kind of tend to argue over what the point of the movie was.

Were there people involved that you could talk or that were willing to talk?

I spoke to almost everybody prior to the movie and have shown it to them since the movie. I spoke to Donna Rice, spoke to Gary Hart, spoke to his daughter, his campaign team.

It must have been incredibly emotional for Donna and Gary, like anyone who has a movie made about their life, but particularly this, because it was such a horrible moment for him, for both of them.

Yeah, I’m going to make a movie about your life. Let me pick the worst week.

What was their reaction, knowing that this was going to be put on film?

Obviously at the beginning, apprehension and anxiety. Once I showed it to them, I think they were relieved by the empathy that I clearly had for all of them. This is done, not as a salacious film, but rather, with sensitivity. A lot of thought and care was put into how we approached this and how we treated everyone fairly. But, I was just as anxious. I was anxious to show them the film.

This is not a nostalgic film at all, but of course you have that feel of All the President’s Men about it. Were you, in some ways, paying tribute to those kinds of classic ‘70s films, including The Candidate?

Oh, yeah. The film takes place in ‘87, but we shot it as though it took place in the ‘70s. Films like Downhill Racer and The Candidate, Nashville, All the President’s Men. The DNA of this movie is deep in the ‘70s

Our Hugh in Gary Hart mode discussing the direction with Jason Reitman

How did you get Hugh Jackman to think that he would be right to play Gary?

That seemed kind of inherent. There’s a cosmetic similarity but beyond that, similar thoughtfulness and his decency. I knew we were going to make a movie about a flawed character, and there was going to be questions about his character. Hugh just has an overwhelming decency that flows through every role he does. If he was going to try something like this for the first time, a true enigma, someone that confounds us, that we want to understand, I wanted that decency to be there. And look, I’m like any director, I want to work with Hugh Jackman. He’s one of the great movie stars of our era.

I don’t think he’s done anything like this before.

And that’s the excitement for me. A director always wants to break new ground with an actor and go somewhere dangerous and scary. For Hugh, playing an enigma, playing someone whose heart doesn’t beat out of his chest, the way he does as Logan, the way he does as P.T. Barnum. Someone who we’re trying to understand. Everyone in the movie’s trying to understand from the outside in, and he won’t let us completely, all the way in.

Do you think, if Hart was the front runner, was he a forerunner for anybody else in terms of politicians that have come since?

The question obviously that you raise is, what politicians refuse to run because of Hart? What type of great candidates look at this landscape, which is so dog-eat-dog, and just go, ‘You know, I don’t need that’. The question that comes up today for me is, shame. Candidates with a sense of shame drop out of the race or don’t even start to jump in from the beginning. Candidates without shame, who don’t experience shame, stay in and they thrive. We have a current system that favours the shameless.

The Front Runner is in cinemas January 31, 2019

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