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Politics and Government

How a movie about Gary Hart will make you rethink modern politics (and the media)

An interview with Jason Reitman, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, the writers behind the movie “The Front Runner,” about “the week America went tabloid”

Hugh Jackman stars in "The Front Runner," a new film about Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's 1988 presidential bid. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)
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Thirty-one years ago, Colorado’s Gary Hart launched his presidential campaign at Red Rocks. It ended about three weeks later in scandal.

Best remembered for the punchline of a boat named “Monkey Business,” Hart’s 1988 presidential bid gets a new look in the movie, “The Front Runner,” that opens Friday in Denver.

The film recounts the former Democratic U.S. senator’s rumored extramarital affair with Miami model Donna Rice after they met on the boat. It’s based on “All The Truth Is Out,” a book by Yahoo News political columnist Matt Bai, and similarly asks deep questions about the moment’s impact on American politics and how it translates in the modern era where Donald Trump is president.

The Colorado Sun sat down with the three co-writers and producers of the movie — Bai, director Jason Reitman and Democratic strategist Jay Carson  — to talk about the questions it raises about politics and the press.

Matt Bai, Jay Carson, center, and Jason Reitman talk about “The Front Runner” at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2018. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, and without questions to enhance the dialogue.

JASON REITMAN: I’m like anyone else right now. I’m looking around me and I’m wondering how the hell we got here. And I read Matt’s book, and I felt here’s a thread to pull on that leads us to 2018.

Here we tried to create a film with 20 main characters, 20 points of view, all centered around this scandal, this one moment when the ground seemed to shift under all of us.

The questions are: Where does a public life start and where does a private life start? When it comes to our curiosity, what is interesting versus what is entertaining versus what is relevant? What kind of flaws are we actually willing to put up with in our leaders? And when did this happen — when did the celebrification of politics start and when did the tabloid industry just drive into the lane of political journalism and root itself there to the point where you open up the news app on your phone and there are equally weighted articles about the midterm and the Ariana Grande-Pete Davidson breakup presented side by side. So it’s really a question for the constituents, the voters, the movie goers.

It’s not our job to set some sort of line. It’s our job to question where the line is. It’s something that we are innately interested in. It’s impossible to be alive today and not look at the system and go, “Alright this is broken,” no matter what side of the political line you are on.

JAY CARSON: Pre-1988 the press follows a rigid rule of never — it’s never relevant. Post-1988 the political press corps follows a rigid rule of always — it’s always relevant. I think neither of those is right.

To the extent we are making an argument here, when we talk about relevance, we all need to — voters, journalists, candidates, operatives like myself — need to use our judgement when and where we talk about this.

MATT BAI: I’ll probably get it wrong, but there’s an old joke that two fish pass in the ocean. One of them says, “How’s the water?” And the other one says, “Water, what water?” We are not here to tell you the water is too warm or the water is too cold or too dirty or too clean. We are basically saying there is all this water and we live with it every day and we don’t think about it.

We don’t think about what it means, we don’t think about how politics is transacted. We don’t think about how it is covered. We don’t think about how we got these candidates. We are asking people to take a look around at the water. … We are just trying to get people to ask those questions and leave the theater having a debate about it.

REITMAN: More than anything I’ve ever made, audience members align themselves with particular characters and presume that whichever character they align themselves with is the identity of the movie. And they get into a conversation with the person sitting next to them and realize the person sitting next to them watched an entirely different film. The movie is a mirror. …

Gary Hart stepped away because this was not the conversation he was going to have. … Here you have a great candidate — someone who was smart, thoughtful, big ideas, charismatic, Kennedy-esque — who also was a human being who had made human mistakes.

In that moment, he said “Look, I’m not going to have that kind of conversation. This is not a version of politics that I’m going to participate in,” and he walked away. And as you look over the last 30 years at what type of people have been drawn to the political process and what kind of people have been pushed away, it really raises this question of which candidates are we not getting.

Something I’ve been saying and I believe is people who experience shame seem to walk away in this process. People who don’t experience shame stay in and really thrive.

CARSON: I’m the guy who has gotten people through a lot of scandals and there’s a playbook. … If you are willing to do anything to get through it, I can get you through it, and people like me can get you through it. But if you are not, then I can’t.

Just think of people you know who are willing to do anything, literally anything to get to the end that’s important to them. Do you like those people? Do you trust them? Do you want them running your business or certainly your country? Do you want to be friends with them? I don’t. And most people in politics now will do anything to get through a scandal. That’s the kind of people drawn to the process now and that’s what the process rewards.

BAI: I felt for a lot of my career, particularly when I was younger, I never had any choices (about which stories to write). In a competitive environment, where everything was fair game, it was always, “It’s out there.” And we were twigs in the river and the current carries you down the stream. You don’t get to decide what’s a story and what isn’t because that’s somehow decided.

We all have individual judgment to bring to the things we write and the stories we cover. In terms of operatives, candidates, reporters, the political world would be a better place if we asked ourselves what are the decisions we can make to feel good at the end of the day, rather than what’s the decision we have to make because everyone else is making it.

REITMAN: We are all curious about our trajectory. I’ve never felt as lost as I feel in this moment, where every day I read the news and I feel even a little bit more lost. I feel as though the country is more split and there is more antagonism — and not even between the parties, but within the parties, where we are kind of ripping each others heads off and cannibalizing each other.

CARSON: We had two goals in making this movie. One, it’s an incredibly gripping human drama, and we wanted people to see it for that reason. You can not give a damn about what’s going on in 2018 and go watch this movie and you’ll be entertained. But the other is to find a place where we can start a conversation at a level that’s not so shrill.

Because everyone I know has already made their mind up about most of the things that are happening in 2018. We can’t talk about it anymore in a way that I’ve never really seen in my life. But we can look at similar issues through the lens of 30 years ago, and we may be able to start a conversation where people don’t come into it already so hot.

“The Front Runner” opens Friday, Nov. 16 at the Esquire Theatre in Denver. The movie begins wider distribution Nov. 21.


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