Directed by Jason Reitman (also of “Tully” this year), “The Front Runner” is pitched at the blurred line between tabloid and legitimate news. While this intersection might seem more relevant today than it’s ever been (with an entertainment personality leading the country at The White House), the true story told in “The Front Runner” is in fact 30 years old. Reitman’s latest, which world premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Labor Day weekend and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival over the last week, is about the Colorado Senator Gary Hart, the presumed frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination in 1988. But over just a few critical days of his campaign, a sex scandal—an extramarital affair between Hart and Donna Rice—was surfaced by the press, which not only derailed Hart’s political campaign and his presidential bid, but also his entire political career to a large degree.
Adapted from journalist and screenwriter Matt Bai’s book “All the Truth is Out” by Reitman, Bai and long-time political strategist and advisor Jay Carson, The Front Runner” immerses the viewer into a fast moving world of shifting perspectives where no one has good options to choose from in order to protect public interest: not the press nor the campaign crew. Exploring a defining time in American politics, “The Front Runner” asks difficult questions around personal decency, political accountability and the sensitive role of press in the process, leaving it to the audience to mine their own answers from a sprawling, dialogue-heavy structure.
We sat down with Bai, Carson and Reitman recently in Toronto to unpack the film’s thematic significance in detail.
“The Front Runner” comes at a peculiar time politically, since it investigates the first time a policy maker’s private life was treated like tabloid news. The connection between 1988 and today is hard to ignore, given we now have a celebrity-like TV personality as President who might have benefited from that forever-blurred line between entertainment and politics.
JASON REITMAN: It’s kind of impossible not to think about those [relevancies].
MATT BAI: You know ironically we pretty much had the script as it is before this president was elected. We knew it was relevant in the process but I think you put your finger on it really eloquently—what that moment represents in 1987 is this collision of entertainment and politics and celebrity and the idea that after that moment politicians will be treated more as celebrities and less as policy makers. And certainly the process that created has something to do with where we are right now. I know we considered the story was relevant and wrote it before that happened.
JR: And it's a very tough time to talk about politics in 2018. It tends to either be an echo chamber or this shrill argument in which people tear each other apart on Twitter. And there's something about going back 30 years that offers this prism through which you can actually have a conversation and observe a story not from one point of view, but a dozen points of view. To look at a room at The Washington Post where you have five different people: young, old, male, female, newcomers, veterans, trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, and what is relevant and important. I feel like that's the question that we're all kind of asking ourselves right now. We have a sense that the system is broken, we certainly have a sense that we elected a very flawed human being in the presidency. And it raises all these questions about why is the system not working. And further down the chain comes these questions of what is important. Yes, we are looking at a potential president at the center of it, but more so we're looking at all the people around simultaneously. The reporters, and the people on the campaign team.
And then on top of that, throwing it back at the audience. Force the audience moment by moment to be listening to so many conversations and having to parse through and see what's important.
Indeed, this is an immersive movie of shifting perspectives. Layers of stories from multiple viewpoints unfold in it: there's the campaign, there's the marriage, the scandal, press ... So how did you all work together to balance these parallel moving parts?
JR: One of the things that make the script unique is the combination of the screenwriters. In that, you have someone that comes from politics, and someone that is a screenwriter, and someone who comes from entertainment, I guess if that's what you call my side of the triangle.
JAY CARSON: We all brought a unique perspective to it. We wanted to make sure that it felt true to the world, that it was at its core a human story about human beings put into really difficult situations for the very first time. No one had ever been where any of these people had been before. What do they do when they are faced with four or five really difficult choices? None of them are really the right choice. So we don't have one dimensional good guys and bad guys in this. There's the campaign staff who are wrestling with difficult choices, the journalists who are wrestling with difficult choices. Two halves of a marriage that are wrestling with difficult choices. What does that end up looking like? And hopefully that launches a conversation from that with this movie.
MB: Jason sat us down early and we watched “The Candidate” (Michael Ritchie) and some others that he had done. His was a singular creative vision—we wanted it to feel real in the newsrooms and real in the campaign offices, that it was going to lend itself to that kind of interpretation. So we knew going in, all of us, in our collaboration that we were going to create scenes where things were happening above the surface, things were happening peripherally, things were happening beneath the surface. And all of those things have to be going on at once. And sometimes our creative process probably began to look like some of those scenes where "you draw one thing, you draw another." It sort of takes on that same rhythm. Being a part of something like that … it was just fun all the time.
JR: We’re always watching political movies that tell us what to think. So many of the movies that have been made about politics come with an agenda or answer. We wanted to make a movie that felt like “The Candidate.” Something that was asking questions more than giving answers.
I really did respond to that non-prescriptive nature of the movie that made you seek your own answers. And on that note, I was happy to see the strong presence of the female POV. We learned that Donna Rice was an educated, smart, complex person. And Lee Hart, Vera Farmiga's character, was also a big, real part of the film.
JR: I’d say that the fourth person in this process is our producer, Helen Estabrook, who's about as smart a human being as I've ever met. She went to Harvard when she was 16 and you know has been my producing partner since “Up in the Air.” And she challenges me on everything in the best way. Something that was really important to all of us was to make a movie that really spoke to the emotional burden that goes on the shoulders of young women and women in general in the midst of a scandal. Particularly women who are in this situation of Ann Devroy of The Washington Post or Irene Kelly on the campaign, when you were the [only] woman in the room and you were not only meant to speak for yourself but for your entire gender.
In the second half, the movie starts to get quiet and really focus on the individuals, really takes particular interest in this kind of journey that Irene Kelly and Donna Rice take, as Irene Kelly brings Donna Rice home. You have two women who are thoughtfully looking at each other and playing with our expectations of who they are supposed to be. You know Donna Rice, for 30 years now, has been thought of as an object and as the butt of a joke. And I think she's the person I had the most empathy for, the first time I read the book.
JC: That was something that was critical to all three of us and as Jason pointed out, to Helen from the very beginning. I've known Matt for almost 20 years. We met when I was 10 and he was 11. When Matt first started telling me about this book, he said three things changed that led to this. It was the fact that satellite trucks moved, that we had 24 hour news cycle, that the influx of journalists into the process because of Watergate, and the rise of feminism. The boys on the bus were no longer just the boys on the bus. And so the role of women in this has been central to the story for all of us for years. And I'm glad you felt like that because it's been a driving force for all of us from the very beginning of the story.
Speaking of your history together, let's go back to the beginning for a little bit. How did you initially team up for this movie to adapt Matt’s book for the screen?
JR: I heard RadioLIVE episode that was centered on Matt's book. And I just couldn't believe that this story had never been told as a movie. I couldn't believe this story; I didn't know [it well] frankly, I was ten years old when it happened. I couldn't believe there was a moment when the next President of the United States was in a dark alleyway in the middle of the night with a group of reporters all trying to figure out what to do in that moment, because no one had ever been there.
It asked so many questions that I wanted to ask, and also it felt like a movie. It felt like a thriller. Within one week, he went from the presumed next president to a guy who left politics forever. I needed to know more and immediately bought his book. They had already been working together on this as a potential movie. When we all finally got in contact, I think from moment one I think I said, "I want you to come over to my house and I want us to watch “The Candidate” together. I think that's going to be our north star." And literally while watching it they started already talking, during the movie, pointing to the screen, pointing to the kinds of things that that movie does so well, that the important conversation is sometimes happening in the background while an innocuous conversation is happening in the foreground. The way that movie points you with your ears instead of your eyes. There's something very specific about that shooting style that echoed the ideology of what was important to us. This idea, how can we explore relevance not only as a philosophical question, but as a movie-going experience?
You keep bringing up “The Candidate.” And yet, it's so interesting that in the fall film festival circles, “The Front Runner” gets compared to Robert Altman’s cinema instead.
JR: Oh always, which took me by surprise. I think instinctually we always want to put things in categories. So as soon as you see a floating camera and a kind of parsed out dialogue, you immediately think “Nashville” and you think Robert Altman. And look, if I get compared to Robert Altman, I will wear that badge proudly.
The truth is that Michael Ritchie, in three films, “Downhill Racer,” “The Candidate,” and “Smile,” created a trilogy about the concept of winning. And of course the high water mark of that trilogy is “The Candidate” because it was about politics. And in it, he used the style, simultaneously to Altman, to really explore the same things that we wanted to explore, but at a different moment in time. That is the film that everyone in the cast had to watch. That is the film that everyone on the crew had to watch. So we would sit there at lunch and parse out and try to figure out everything that made that movie work, because it became the structural blueprint of to how to tell a story from 12 points of view. How to tell a story when you don't want the audience to think one thing but encourage them to think many things.
JC: When Jason Reitman wants to attach himself to a project that you're working on, it's really good news. I amazingly had never seen [“The Candidate”]. I've done three presidential campaigns, more senate races than I can count, and I'm like "Holy shit! That's what a campaign feels like! And this is what he wants to be our north star!" It has been a total joy of a collaboration, I think for all three of us, from the very beginning. We've loved every single part of it.
MB: Everybody involved in it loved it. I'm not an expert at filmmaking, but I think that's one of the reasons that the onscreen ensemble works so well and the overlapping dialogue works so well – all because everybody loved the vision. Everybody on set was energized by the craft and the way they were exercising it. It began to feel very much like a campaign. The campaign operators and the reporters were all getting to know each other. We're all friends and we laugh together on the set so, you know, there's just great spirit to this whole enterprise.
JR: Well it was a choreographed messiness. Which is really tricky. It seems like something that's kind of easy. And then you start to try to recreate layers of real life where the journalists seem to be knowing, doing the right thing, the camera operators doing the right thing, the phone bankers are doing the right thing. It's messy and alive and people are interrupting each other, and everyone is mic’ed. And your sound mixer is playing the mixing board like a piano because he has three conversations going on at once. There has to be chemistry or this kind of thing doesn't work.
And that’s part of the reason why films like this, and “The Candidate” and “Nashville” benefit from repeat viewings. Because of all the moving pieces and simultaneous dialogues.
JR: Oh yeah we encourage people to buy many tickets! [Laughs]
JC: I think I [take away] something different from this movie every single time I watch it. Every single time! That, to me, having been involved in it for a while, is a real testament to the movie.
Jason, you mentioned that you were not really familiar with Gary Hart's story, since you were very young when it happened. I wasn’t either since I didn’t grow up here. Watching the movie, apart from all the layers that we've been talking about, I also thought about how quickly the public gets scandalized over extramarital sex. People don't think of politicians as human beings who can have a private life, however flawed, and then separate that from their political ideals or agendas.
JR: I have to start by saying, you're right. Half the audience is going to feel one thing and half is going to feel the other. And we wanted to make a film that was respectful of that and encouraged conversation rather than saying this is the only thing. So half the audience is going to say, "I don't care what happens in a candidate's bedroom," and half the audience is going to say, "Nah, you're running for president, I need to know everything." But you're right. Sexuality is a white hot topic, particularly in the US. And to a certain extent that's really important. And at the same time we have to recognize when we talk about sex, we stop talking about everything else. So it's just ... it's a topic that requires responsibility. It's an easy word to throw around because we're all responsible to a certain extent. Voters, readers, journalists, campaign people, people running for office. But we each have to be thoughtful about the conversation; it becomes a thing that the second it's brought up we have to recognize what are we not talking about when we start talking about sex.
And while there's Gary Hart’s consensual but extramarital affair that scandalized the public, there is also our current president who said incredibly degrading things about women, but walked out of all completely consequence-free.
JR: I think it's a question of shame, right? In this system as it exists right now, if you're someone that experiences shame, you drop out of the race. If you're someone who does not experience shame, not only do you stay in, but you soar. You succeed. So we have a system that really rewards shameless people. I don't think that's a good system.
JC: Yeah, what Matt found in his book and what we felt we found in this movie is this moment in American politics when everything changes. And what we're part of, what we're trying to introduce into the conversation here that we hope our movie launches in the audience is the question of judgment. And so pre-1988, you never ask a question about a person's personal life. It's completely off limits. After 1988, you must always ask every question about a candidate's personal life and everything is within the scope of what you can ask about. Neither of those is right. There were times before '88 when it was absolutely relevant, and somebody should have asked about it. Some particular candidates come to mind. After '88, it's asked about with everyone, and sometimes when it isn't as relevant. And so all we're trying to do is start a discussion about us as voters, journalists, candidates, operatives, using their judgment as a part of the process.
Press doesn't come out of this movie as the good guys necessarily; they are in a tricky spot, having brought down a good candidate who could have won. In that regards, how would you like the public to engage with this story and the role of press in today’s complex political times? I mean, on one hand, press might be a flawed entity, perhaps going after something they shouldn’t have. On the other, their freedom to publish the facts for public interest should be protected, especially today, when Trump is constantly attacking the press, falsely accusing them of fabricating the truth. So I'm wondering about that balance in the film’s message.
JR: I'm really happy you brought that up.
MB: I agree with you. You put it well, they come out in a tricky situation, neither good nor bad; it's tricky like everyone else. Look, I'm a working journalist like you. I write a column every week. I've been doing this for 20 years. I was with The New York Times for 11 years; I was the C-desk reporter at the Boston Globe before that. I write for Yahoo now. My wife's been a TV journalist for 20 years. My friends are in journalism. I live in Washington. My kids are practically journalists.
For me, there's no way that we come to this movie with contempt for what journalists do. But we are asking a question of everybody involved, former operatives like Jay, my industry, is what I talk about in the book; consumers and voters like Jason, right? We're asking everybody, "is it too much to reflect on the decisions we have made and the consequences they've had and what have those decision wrought in the process?” And I do feel, I do understand journalists being under attack. I'm under attack, personally and as an industry in Washington. But that doesn't exempt us from being self-critical in the same way that politicians and political operatives and voters have to be self-critical. And I think we can afford to reflect on a moment and reflect on the decisions we made and still retain the nobility of what we do, because that's part of growing.
JR: What I'm really proud of, frankly, is the way that we portray a room like [Ben] Bradlee's office at The Washington Post, where you see a group of journalists, young, old, male, female, veterans and newcomers, trying to figure out what's right. That's what the whole movie is about. The movie is a dozen points of view, whether you're at the Herald, where they were trying to figure out how they do this article, or you're at The Washington Post who I imagine is facing a dilemma that every newspaper is facing these days which is, "What do we cover? Everyone else is covering this stuff. This is clearly what people want to read, they're clicking and they're clicking … How do we not cover these things that we're not as interested in and we don't even find as relevant but we feel the need to?" And I feel it as a filmmaker, because I look at the movies that people want to see! And I go, "am I supposed to make those movies?"
What we want to explore, is trying to figure out how to do that in real time when there is no time to make a decision, when you don't have all the information. This is a scandal that happened in a week. Just kind of crazy that on one day, the guy was the front-runner. And a week later, he left the presidency forever. [There is] Mamoudou Athie and Ari Graynor having a conversation over coffee about "what is relevant" or "what is important." And Ben Bradlee talking to Mamoudou, or even that conversation in the middle of the night at the Miami Herald as they try to figure out "what quote do we use? Is this the story? Do we need to know her name?"
And even people on the campaign, trying to figure out how they feel about a guy they admire, trying to figure out, "well, I sacrificed my whole life so this person could be president. Does that exempt him from my own judgment?" It's a movie about a flawed person at the center, and every point of view around trying to figure out what is right.
JC: Every single journalist in this movie is trying to do the right thing. We may disagree with the decisions they ultimately make but every single one of them is wrestling with it. No person is like, "Oh, I found the bad thing to do, to fuck this person over. I'm going to go do it." Literally everyone is trying to figure out what the right thing is to do, with a ticking clock! Deadline's happening! Paper's coming out in the morning!
JR: And the movie constantly puts the mirror back up to the audience and is asking the audience "what do you think is important? What do you think is relevant?" And it pushes the audience out the door before the movie can make a decision on that, so they're forced to kind of talk about it on the drive home.
And I couldn't help but think about the incessant focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails. Everybody kept going after it over and over. It perhaps needed to be reported to a degree, but then that meant we didn't talk about other more important things.
MB: You’re on to something. You [earlier] asked a question about adultery and the values in America and why we care about sex and politics. To me, sex has always been too narrow an issue, because what you're getting at I think is the heart of the issue which is, the moment when so much of our politics and our political journalism became about the presumption that somebody is a fraud, that a candidate must be in some way flawed, then the only question is how do we find out what that flaw is. How do we define that person by that flaw? And what 1987 represents in some ways is this moment that we're putting on screen, the end of context in our politics. Everyone is defined by the worst thing we can find out about them. But we no longer measure their careers by all of the things they've done. The decisions they've made, the tough love, have they told the truth to the public, have they made difficult choices that so many politicians won't make … that goes out the window. It is about the obsession with scandal and the obsession with exposure. Which is a different thing from accountability.
JC: We distill people down to one thing now as a society. And what we're asking in this movie is to sort of pull back and not do that on all sides of the fence.