Aspen Times Weekly: ‘The Front Runner’ at the Denver Film Festival
Something changed forever in American culture, media and politics in the spring of 1987, during the three weeks between Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's dramatic presidential campaign announcement at Red Rocks and his ignominious retreat from public life amid a sex scandal.
Those three weeks are the subject of Jason Reitman's new film, "The Front Runner," starring Hugh Jackman as Hart, leading a sprawling ensemble cast. It tracks, from every angle, the candidate's undoing amid allegations of an extra-marital affair and the moment where the media switched how it would cover politicians' personal lives.
"We wanted to make a movie from the point of view of 20 different people — the journalists, the campaign people, Hart's family members — many people trying to understand the scandal as the world shifted underneath their feet," Reitman said before a screening at the Denver Film Festival. "A movie without heroes and without villains, just normal people trying to do the right thing."
With a sweeping style and a true-to-life messiness in dialogue reminiscent of Robert Altman, "The Front Runner" hops from crowded newsrooms in Miami and Washington to the frenzy of Hart's Denver campaign headquarters and the carnival of the campaign trail, back to his wife and daughter home in Troublesome Gulch. At the story's center is Hart's relationship with the 29-year-old Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), but the nature of their relationship is left ambiguous. Instead, Reitman focuses on how his morally ambiguous characters react to it.
(Aspen's small part in the Hart saga is among the details Reitman leaves out of the film. The senator met Rice at a New Year's Eve party at Don Henley's house in Woody Creek. But Reitman ignores that and depicts Rice and Hart's time together months later on the notoriously named "Monkey Business" yacht in Miami as their first encounter.)
Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) acts on an anonymous tip that Hart is having an affair and stakes out Hart's Washington home in the hopes of catching him meeting Rice for a tryst. Fiedler and other reporters eventually confront Hart in the alley behind his house. That dramatic and unprecedented moment in campaign trail history, when Reitman heard about it on the podcast "Radiolab," inspired the filmmaker to tell this story.
"I couldn't believe that the next president of the United Stats wound up in this alleyway in the middle of the night with these journalists and nobody knew what to do because no one had been in their shoes before," Reitman said. "It felt like a movie — like a Western stand-off in the midst of a film noir."
Despite the tawdry scandal his name now evokes, Hart was a cerebral policy wonk. The film deftly communicates some of the senator's prescient ideas. In an early scene where he's being pressed by a reporter about his marriage, for instance, Hart is working on policies to the combat religious extremism and terrorism that he foresees rising after the Cold War. After the Rice scandal has broken and his campaign staff is pressing him to respond publicly, Hart refuses so that he can focus on a speech about the digital economy he knows will emerge in the years to come.
Despite those insights, somehow, he was blind to the way the media was changing, how his personal and family life were fair game in the campaign, and how his sex life might cripple his bid for the presidency.
Mike Littwin, the veteran Colorado reporter and columnist who covered Hart, argued in a panel at the festival that Hart — private and unfaithful — was basically in the wrong campaign at the wrong time.
"He was at the exact wrong moment to be Gary Hart," Littwin said.
In the 1984 campaign, when Hart first ran for president, the press knew he'd been separated from his wife and had other romantic partners, Littwin said. They didn't report it. In 1988, they decided that they would. So four years before the events of "The Front Runner," a candidate's affair didn't matter because the press wouldn't report it. Four years later, an affair didn't matter because — as Bill Clinton proved — you can still win if you're willing to endure the embarrassment of revelations.
Reitman co-wrote the screenplay with veteran political operative Jay Carson and journalist Matt Bai. It's based on Bai's book, "All the Truth is Out." They began working on it in 2015, before Donald Trump's election, before "grab 'em by the …" and before revelations of the Stormy Daniels affair and Playboy model hush payments. However, Bai argued in Denver, the seed of the Trump era circus were planted during Hart's downfall.
"What the film captures is a moment in which entertainment and politics collided — two cultures that had been separate, coming together — and when we began to treat politicians like celebrities," Bai said. "When you create a process that treats politicians like celebrities, I believe, you are bound to get entertainers as your politicians."