In an era that’s seen a dramatic uptick in political engagement, activism, and outrage, it’s easy to forget the campaign of one-time Democratic favorite Gary Hart. Back in 1988, Hart was the favorite to take the Democratic nomination for president, with early polls having him beating George H.W. Bush by double digits. Then, over the course of a few short weeks, Hart’s campaign crumbled after allegations of having an affair.
In The Front Runner, directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, takes a hard look at those fateful couple weeks, using author Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out as the template, with Hugh Jackman playing the role of Hart.
Ahead of the film’s premiere at this year’s Austin Film Festival, we sat down with the accomplished director to talk about the relevance of a 30-year-old story on today’s political climate, and whether or not we have a system designed to favor the shameless.
Was it frustrating making this movie today, knowing Americans are so bad at heeding warnings?
[Laughs] I mean, I was more curious about what do we find important, what do find relevant? When I would tell people I was doing this movie about the Gary Hart scandal, inevitably people will go ‘Monkey business!,’ [or] ‘What was her name? That blonde’s name? Donna Rice?’ And they would talk about her like an object, and it occurred to me that this story, the story which I found to be quite important, had kind of boiled down to the name of a boat and a photograph in people’s memories.
This moment that seemed to kinda shift the relationship between public and private, the relationship between candidates and journalists. So, what it made me curious about was the way that we read the news now and what do we actually find important?
Knowing this story was set squarely in 1988, was there anything about our current political climate that helped inform the story?
We wrote it in 2015, that’s kind of wild thing. This Radiolab piece that I heard was in 2015, and I read Matt Bai’s book. We went to work on it and it was while we were shooting Tully that the presidential election happened and we went into The Front Runner and things just seem to continually be shifting as we were making the movie. The movie just continued to kind of snowball with relevance to a point where I was, I think we all felt like, ‘Okay, enough relevance already.’
Not to dramatically shift to another era, but this very much feels like one of those iconic political ensemble films from the 1970s.
I mean, that was the intention, but you never know if you’re going to pull that off.
I’d say you did. I’m curious about some of the films back then that you were looking at for inspiration?
The key one’s The Candidate, that Michael Ritchie film. That more than anything. Everyone had to watch that. We watched it many times. That was the north star, that kind of balance of important and innocuous dialogue all interwoven to the point where you don’t know what’s what anymore, that comes from The Candidate. You can’t help but look at The War Room, Primary Colors, All The President’s Men, and Broadcast News even. I mean, there’s just so many great films about politics typically in the 70s. [That was] the era we were trying to emulate, but nothing more than The Candidate.
Like you’d mentioned, Gary Hart is remembered as kind of a footnote in our collective political memory, but it’s quite the ride, cinematically speaking.
That’s the crazy thing about this story. He goes from being the next president to leaving politics forever in less than a week. It’s like a thriller.
You also, I assume consciously, left out any definitive answers about Hart’s relationship to Rice.
I mean, Hart has certainly never told us. Donna Rice has not told us, so we’re all assuming something happened, but the truth is we don’t know. You know, two people met at a party, he invited her up to his townhouse in DC, she met him up there, and the Miami Herald decided to stake them out. A big choice on their part, and the Miami Herald doesn’t know. We don’t know.
I think that plays into the film’s most frustrating aspects, is that this fallout all happens due to a bunch of interconnected maybes, and the consequences that have resulted over the past 30 years have been quite varied.
And if it’s true or not true, at what point does it become our business? At what point does it become relevant in matter? And that’s the question that we’re asking, that seem to not be asked at the time.
On that note, I’m curious if you think Gary Hart’s campaign would survive this if were to happen today.
He certainly would have been under more scrutiny today, but the truth is he wouldn’t have run today. He made it clear 30 years ago that he was not gonna have this conversation. That he was not going to talk about things that he found irrelevant. So the question I suppose we have to ask ourselves is ‘Who is not running, and who was running instead?’
And in a moment when people who feel shame step away, and people who don’t feel shame stay in and thrive, do we just have a system that favors the shameless?
The Front Runner is in limited release staring today, and will open in theaters everywhere on November 21st.