The Team Behind ‘The Front Runner’ Wants To Answer Every American’s Question: ‘How The Hell Did We Get Here?’

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Photo: The Front Runner Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart
Hugh Jackman stars in Columbia Pictures' "The Front Runner."

The seeds for today's potent hybrid of entertainment and celebrity with politics and journalism may have been planted in a very Colorado scandal 30 years ago.

Over just a few key days in the 1988 presidential race, Democratic Sen. Gary Hart emerged and fell as the front runner. His campaign was brought down by reports of an alleged affair with model Donna Rice, uncovered by the Miami Herald.

Hart's story, and those of the people surrounding him, are now a film called "The Front Runner." Hugh Jackman plays the presidential candidate. The film opens nationwide Wednesday, Nov. 21, but had early screenings at the Denver Film Festival and opens at select Denver theaters Friday, Nov. 16.

Director Jason Reitman, known for "Juno" and "Thank You For Smoking," worked closely with journalist Matt Bai, who's 2014 book "All the Truth is Out" is the basis for the film, and Jay Carson, a former political consultant and a producer on "House on Cards."

Reitman, Bai and Carson talked to Colorado Matters about how American politics have changed, the making of the film and, yes, working with Hugh Jackman.

Interview Highlights

Jay Carson on capturing politics on film: We really wanted this to feel real. We really wanted it to feel like a campaign, and to capture both the excitement and the humor of a campaign. On a presidential campaign there’s so much happening, you’re basically packing two days of work into every single day. And that creates a peripatetic moment inside of the campaign. You don’t sit and hold onto one thing for a long period because 50 things are happening at the same time.

We tried to capture that in every scene. Jason really gave us the freedom to do this, this was really his leadership. We don’t need to have one single main character, we can follow 20 different people and we can lock in on their perspectives at various times during the movie.

Matt Bai on the bigger picture: The movie isn’t going to give you all or guess at all the prurient details. We don't get into what happened on the boat because we don’t know and it’s not that important. It’s certainly not important to the story of all these forces that were changing at that moment.

The story isn’t whether or not there's an affair, the story is why did all these forces collide to bring the cultures of entertainment and the cultures of politics together in that moment. From that moment on, politicians are treated more like we treat celebrities, they’re seen more as personalities. And when you create a politics infused with entertainment, you’re very likely to get entertainers and performers as candidates.

Jason Reitman on drawing a line from then to now: Like everybody alive right now, I look around and I wonder ‘How the hell did we get here?’ It’s a confusing moment, no matter what side you’re on. And we’re trying to navigate that. I think that's why we read news like it’s ‘Game of Thrones'...

[Gary Hart] is a private person. He is very clear about what he thinks is relevant and what is irrelevant. What I’m curious about is the rest of us. What do we consider relevant? Where does something stop being important just start being entertaining? It was confusing in ‘87, and it has only gotten more confusing now. Now you wake up, you open up your news app and there’s literally a story about the midterms right next to a story about Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson breaking up. And they are from the same source and given equal weight, and I find that really confusing.

Photo: The Front Runner Jason Reitman Matt Bai Jay Carson
Journalist Matt Bai, film director Jason Reitman and writer Jay Carson at Red Rocks in Colorado.

Reitman on casting Hugh Jackman: The cosmetic similarity [between Gary Hart and Hugh Jackman] is obviously helpful, but that doesn't matter as much as the interconnective tissue. I wanted to make sure that in the midst of this scandal, in the midst of the hardest weeks of Gary Hart’s life, his inner-decency rang through. And that’s one of the things I associate with Hugh Jackman. His decency, his kindness, his generosity, who he is as a human being.

This is the first time Hugh has played a real life person who is alive today. Someone he knew would then see the movie. There’s a burden to that. I think all three of us felt the burden of making this movie.

Reitman on the film's takeaways: There’s no heroes and no villains in this movie. Everyone has their own sensitivities. Frankly, that’s what makes this story so interesting. It seems to reflect the viewer. We wrote this movie in 2015. And obviously the world has shifted over the last three years. People bring baggage to the movie theater. That’s part of what makes movies special. You go in with your own human experience, and the screen reflects you, and then you walk out of the movie and you see the rest of your life through the lens of the film.

Bai on whether the film is too sympathetic to Hart: I don’t think [the move] is overly sympathetic to Sen. Hart. I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been covering national politics for 20 years. I understand that this is a difficult moment for journalism. And I understand that when you show something from a politician's point of view, when you scrutinize coverage, you’re wading into a sensitive area.

This is a movie that asks everybody to reflect on decisions made in a moment. It looks at the candidate, and at the aides, and at the voters, and, yes, at the journalists. And it says, ‘Let’s revisit these decisions, because they had consequences.’

Photo: 'All the Truth is Out' Book Cover
“All the Truth is Out: The Week that Politics Went Tabloid" by Matt Bai

Carson on Hart's involvement, or rather non-involvement, with the film: We didn’t make this movie with Gary Hart, we didn't make this movie for Gary Hart. We made this movie because we thought it was an important story to tell.

Bai on the "what if" had Hart gone on to be president: This isn’t a story about how Gary Hart or how a bunch of people changed American politics, as much as it is a story about the moment when American politics and American political journalism changed, long and coming, and a bunch of people got caught in that moment and had to make really difficult decisions.

So the ‘what if’ of it is fun, but it never interested me as much because I don't think there was an alternative. I don’t think there was a way to change the direction of where we were going in terms of the entertainment and politics and their confluence and their effect on one another. I think that's where the culture was heading for a whole bunch of reasons. And the truth of our existence 30 years on is more about who can succeed as a candidate and who can’t and who wants to be in politics.