The thrilling drama The Front Runner follows the rise and fall of Senator Hart, who captured the imagination of young voters and was considered the overwhelming front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when his campaign was sidelined by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice. As tabloid journalism and political journalism merged for the first time, Senator Hart was forced to drop out of the race – events that left a profound and lasting impact on American politics and the world stage.
The film is a perfect example of the art of collaboration in film-making, with Jason Reitman directing from a script he co-wrote with Matt Bai, a nationally known journalist, author and screenwriter on whose book All the Truth is Out the film is based, and screenwriter Jay Carson, a former political consultant and veteran of the 2004 Dean and 2008 Clinton campaigns (also renown as the inspiration for Ryan Gosling’s character in Ides of March)—who had embarked on a new career as a creative consultant on House of Cards.
When Reitman met with Bai and Carson, it was kismet.
In the spring of 1987, a clear and undeniable front runner emerged in the race for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination: Colorado Senator Gary Hart—whose smarts, charismatic idealism and sheer excitement factor seemed all but destined for the White House and the making of a new chapter in American history. By April, Hart had opened up a gaping lead in the polls. Three weeks later, in a spectacularly public fall from grace, he was out of the race and Presidential politics forever.
Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner explores the moment of Hart’s sudden downfall as a watershed for the nation. In this singular moment, privacy and publicity, politics and celebrity, journalism and gossip, new power structures and old power imbalances, high ideals and the most human flaws all seemed to merge and recombine—carving out a roiling new landscape with which we’re still reckoning today.
Though Hart’s future was undone by rumors of a marital affair, The Front Runner doesn’t ask did he or didn’t he. Rather, it takes a panoramic view of the myriad charged reactions to what it meant for America.
With the pace of a crime thriller, the film becomes a kind of political procedural, in which a restlessly mobile but even-handed camera captures the wide-ranging impact of the rumored affair on Hart’s marriage, on the young idealists on his campaign staff, on journalism and on society at large.
Drawn from Matt Bai’s book, All The Truth Is Out, the film zeroes in on those very last few days in which Hart’s promise was upended.
Hart (Hugh Jackman) is laser-focused on his ideas for remaking American leadership, while the press increasingly clamors to break open his personal side.
When The Miami Herald receives an anonymous tip that Hart is having an affair, things get more than personal. An all-night stakeout of Hart’s Washington D.C. townhouse leads to photographs of an unidentified young woman coming and going.
Hart, who has always decried the role of personal trivia in politics, tries to push on. But when the woman is named as Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), a Miami-based model Hart partied with on a boat named Monkey Business, frenzy spreads through the media.
As Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) scrambles to stem the damage and Hart’s wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) grapples with her own complex response, Hart tries to stay above the fray, until that fray begins to swallow him.
Reitman saw the film as a chance to chronicle, in the most detailed and alive way, the full tapestry of what was going on in that electric social moment—the last before the internet changed all, before the lines between politics, media and entertainment blurred beyond distinction. Like a mirror to 2018, the story reflects back the origins of our restive questioning over whose truth counts, whose power should be protected, which stories should be reported and what flaws we will or won’t accept in our leaders.
Says Reitman, “This was a moment when the ground shifted underneath everybody—it shifted quickly and afterwards, the world was different. In 1987, you had A Current Affair, the first gossip news show, you had the emergence of the satellite news truck, you had CNN giving their reporters satellite phones for the first time, you had the first generation of reporters who grew up on Woodward and Bernstein as celebrities and you had a new force of women changing the workplace. All of these things were happening at the same time and together, they created conditions Hart failed to foresee.”
He continues: “This was also a moment that informs the moment we’re living in right now—a moment when we are asking really big questions about where media should focus its attention, what is appropriate behavior for people in power, what happens when you’re a whistleblower and how much we have a right to know about each other’s private lives.”
Reitman was inspired to try to tell that story in a vibrant, kinetic way that would connect the present to the past without stamping any judgment on it.
The form of the film became part of its function, with the film’s use of multiple POVs, hyperrealism and overlapping conversations amplifying its central theme.
“I wanted the style of the film to ask the audience to constantly decide what is most important to look at,” he explains. “The point isn’t to say we should never talk about personal flaws in politics, but rather to ask: what are we not talking about when that’s taking up all the focus? What questions are we giving up? There is so much going on, that the movie is regularly giving the audience the choice: do you want to look at a or b? The movie does that right up until the last shot where you get to ask: where do your eyes want to go? What matters most to these characters and to you and are they the same?”
In the book All The Truth Is Out, Matt Bai—a former chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and currently a national political columnist for Yahoo News—called Hart’s “a story of the moment when the worlds of public service and tabloid entertainment, which had been gradually orbiting closer to one another, finally collided, and of the man who found himself improbably trapped in that collision.”
With close access to Hart and many of those who worked for, cared for and reported on him, Bai was able to tell the riveting story as no one had ever heard it: from the perspective of the world it foreshadowed.
Bai says now that part of what motivated him to write the book was the realization that just as Hart’s story was fading into the background, it seemed more urgently relevant than ever, especially as scandal seemed to be outgunning substance daily.
“Hart’s run had been largely forgotten,” he says. “But the story I felt that needed to be told—and the story we tell in the film—is that this was the moment we began down the path in our media coverage that has led to the politics we have today.” He continues: “We have an environment now in which candidates need to be entertainers, they need certain skills to evade scandals, they need to be outright dishonest to navigate the currents of the coverage. I wrote the book because I think many of us feel it’s time right now to stop and ask what the distortion of the process is doing to our world.”
Even as Bai was doing traditional reportorial work for his book, he was pursuing what was then perceived as a diversion: attempting his first fiction screenplay, which originally had nothing to do with Hart.
He’d partnered with his good friend Jay Carson—a former political consultant and veteran of the 2004 Dean and 2008 Clinton campaigns (also renown as the inspiration for Ryan Gosling’s character in Ides of March)—who had embarked on a new career as a creative consultant on House of Cards.
One day, when Bai mentioned his research on Hart, Carson suddenly said, “Why aren’t we writing this story?”
The more the two talked about it, the more it became clear that they could bring an uncommonly inside view, having each worked opposite the other in presidential campaigns: Bai on the media side, Carson on the campaign side (the pair first met in 1999, when Bai was covering Bill Bradley’s campaign and Carson was an advance man for Bradley).
They knew the language, the gallows humor, the incessant pressures, the intensity of the friendships and both had personally grappled with the questions about media and democracy that Bai’s book was exploring.
“For both of us I think there was also a sense of writing to exorcise our personal demons from the campaign world,” says Carson. “We both felt very troubled by what we had seen in our careers and we knew that the deeper problems hadn’t really ever been fixed. The fundamentals are broken.”
The research Bai shared with Carson, along with his own, highlighted to him to him how much Hart’s ordeal anticipated a new era in politics.
“Hart had a youthful, Kennedy-like appeal and he spoke to the promise of America as no other politician in that era,” he says. “At the same time, there was a generational gap in how journalists saw him. Those over 40 accepted his feeling that he deserved a zone of privacy. But younger journalists, raised on Watergate, had an entirely different expectation of what was fair game.”
Bai notes that the generational shift was also driven by sweeping social and technological changes. “Satellite technology meant suddenly the news could go live anywhere at any time,” he explains. “And when you’re live for 24 hours there is a real pressure to create a soap opera and keep the people in their seats. At the same time, you have changing attitudes towards adultery, marriage and women in the workplace, which made the story polarizing in a dramatic way.”
Things have clearly only escalated, with scandals becoming more absurd, media doubling down on the outrage and the symbiosis between policy-making and showmanship now so thick it is impossible to untangle.
As a journalist, Bai knows it only too well. “We’re in a moment right now of taking stock, so we wanted to write this not to pass judgment on anyone’s motivations, but to draw attention to the fact that actions have consequences, for both politicians and media. This is something I’ve said to my colleagues in journalism: we need to understand that what we do isn’t a game. What we do can reverberate through the years and the decades, changing the course of history.”
Bai and Carson were still in the early stages of writing in 2016 when Bai appeared on WNYC’s innovative, big-idea-wrestling podcast Radiolab talking about the 1988 campaign.
Unbeknownst to Bai, one of the listeners was Jason Reitman, a long-time fan of the show. Reitman was riveted.
He recalls, “I didn’t even really know who Gary Hart was, because I was 10 years-old when he ran for President, but when I heard this story, I instantly saw in it the seeds of how we got to the moment where we are now. I immediately ordered the book, loved it, loved the detail, and it just felt like it was a movie waiting to be made. That has only happened a few times for me in my life and I was just ready to jump in.”
Reitman is known for engaging with the deeper fabric of modern life in fun and energetic ways, satirizing the world of spin in Thank You For Smoking, upending all the expectations of the teenage pregnancy drama with the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Juno and excavating the human costs of economic limbo and corporate layoffs in Up in the Air (nominated for six Academy Awardsâ).
Still, The Front Runner would be in many ways his most thematically and certainly stylistically ambitious work to date, which was part of the allure.
When Reitman met with Bai and Carson, it was kismet.
Not only did they have a natural rapport, but Reitman brought in ideas that changed the whole tone and tenor of the script.
The first thing Reitman did was invite Bai and Carson over to watch Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film, The Candidate, often considered the seminal take, albeit now four decades old, on the selling of modern political candidates. Starring Robert Redford as a high-minded lawyer who makes once unthinkable compromises on the road to becoming a California Senator, the film is beloved for its frenzied, simulated realism and its skewering of how substantive promise can be transformed into sheer image.
“I said to Matt and Jay, ‘this is what our movie should feel like,’” recalls Reitman. “I said let’s create a hyper-real universe and do it the way you might do the world-building in a major fantasy film, with that kind of intense appreciation for detail and immersive texture. That started us down that path where there’s a reason for every detail in this movie, right down to what liquor each character drinks.”
Bai and Carson were already big fans of Reitman, but now they saw him as a jolt of creative lightening. “Jason saw immediately how to refocus what we were doing,” recalls Bai. “We’d previously been given advice to tell a more fictional story and then Jason came along and said, ‘this an important moment in American politics and we need to tell the real story.’ I can’t tell you how gratifying it was for us to hear that. It was clear that he truly got it and it kicked off an incredible collaboration.”
Adds Carson, “Jason gave us the courage to strip the Hollywoodness from the script. He focused us on moving between three key realms in the story: the campaign, the press and Hart’s family. He was like a captain in rough seas who said trust me, we’ll do the real thing and it will work. And he was right.”
Bai and Carson had already developed their own writing method—one would write for a while then hand the draft to the other, who would start back from page one, rewriting before advancing the story again. This way the voice remained consistent even as both their ideas were integrated.
Now Reitman was incorporated into that same organic flow. “It worked,” says Bai, “because we all felt an ownership of the writing and yet now none of us can untangle who wrote what part.”
Another key idea Reitman brought in from the start was to nix the expected first-person, singular POV. Rather than have Hart or even Donna Rice tell the story, Reitman thought: why not replace the central narrator with a neutral, panoramic view that gives each of the rich panoply of characters a voice without assigning anyone the role of hero or villain?
Bai and Carson found it liberating. “Now the storytelling started to be complex in the way that reality is complex,” says Bai. “It encourages the audience to decide on their own who was right, who was wrong and where it led.”
The trio also shared an acute sense of humor that kept the screenplay light even at its most barbed. This, too, was a mirror of reality.
“Campaign staffers and journalists are some of the funniest, most sharptongued and observant people I’ve ever met,” notes Carson. “I laughed my ass off on every campaign I’ve worked on. And that became one of the most important things to Jason, that we use the real language and words you would really hear in the backrooms of campaigns.”
Along the way, Reitman met with many of the real players in the film, including Gary Hart, Hart’s daughter Andrea, Donna Rice, as well as many of the campaign staff from 1987.
Perhaps more importantly, he sent each person a questionnaire that added layer upon layer of personal specifics to the characters. “I asked them each to describe a normal day in your life in 1987 and asked questions like: what were your hobbies? What was your favorite sports team? What did you drink and what were your favorite snacks? Whose photo did you have on your desk? We incorporated all of this.”
As much as Reitman, Bai and Carson chased reality, there remained unknowns.
“There are of course many moments where we didn’t know exactly what was said behind closed doors and that were never documented so that’s where some imagination came in,” explains Carson.
Another vital element for all three was giving the women in the story their say, especially because women’s voices have historically been muffled in these situations. Says Reitman: “It was really important to us have five different female characters to watch this story through: Donna Rice, Lee Hart, Andrea Hart, Irene Kelly and Ann Devroy at The Washington Post—and they each come at the situation from different POVs.”
Bai had come to know Rice while researching his book. “So often, the women in these situations get cast aside or mischaracterized. But Donna is a far more complicated person than was depicted at the time, and we wanted to make sure that was in the writing. You have to keep in mind that there was no playbook for her in 1987—there was no one who’d gone through that in American politics before. So it was vital to us to tell her story with compassion and complexity, to show her dignity,” says Bai.
Carson elaborates, “We really wanted to pose the question: ‘What would it have been like to be Donna in this moment?’ I think you can’t help but empathize with her as you watch this young woman descend into the jaws of the media in a way that can be incredibly destructive to your being.”
When it came to Lee Hart, Carson had other personal experiences to draw on. “My most formative political experience was with the wife of a politician accused of an affair—it’s just that she also happened to be candidate Hillary Clinton. So I knew there was this very human, painful side to someone who is in that position that isn’t exposed to the world.”
Ultimately, with no one character given predominance, each of the actors’ deft portraits combined into a mosaic to become more than the sum of their parts. “That was the clarity of vision that Jason brought to it,” sums up Bai.
The script’s multifaceted approach—and its mix of raw humor and unvarnished humanity— spurred the dedication of two producers who saw it as an exciting leap for Reitman: Helen Estabrook, who works with Reitman at Right of Way Productions and produced the Oscar-winning Whiplash; and Aaron L. Gilbert, whose BRON Studios is a champion of bold storytelling and worked with Reitman on Tully.
Both understood the risks. The film would be a challenge to shoot, with its emphasis on improvisatory cross-talk and parallel action, its roving, unpredictable camera and its insistence on not judging characters who without realizing it in the moment are seen changing the American trajectory, and their own lives, with their decisions.
But they also felt Reitman had full control of it. “I trust Jason implicitly. He’s both a friend and a great creative partner,” says Gilbert.
“So when he walked me through how he wanted to do this story and why he wanted to do this story, honestly my response was let’s get to it. What I loved most about the script is that the affair is really secondary to the main story. We never even know if the affair happened and the script doesn’t go there. Instead, it’s about a major sea-change in the tenor of politics and the way media covers it, and that is what got us all excited.”
Estabrook notes that it’s hard to look at the film’s thematic swirl without seeing where we are in 2018.
“The story touches on many things in our society that we are just now starting to untangle, from the complexities of how to report on political figures to the degree to which our society has been trained to protect men in power,” she says. “It speaks to what our responsibilities are to each other, whether as private citizens or public figures. I think Jason was deeply inspired by the chance to do that in a way that also lets him play with classical 70s filmmaking and an of-the-moment approach.”
With so many pieces combining to make the final film, everyone involved was thrilled to see it all come together as Reitman had hoped: forging its own 1987 universe while reflecting on current times.
Aaron Gilbert says, “Everyone knew this film was not going to be an easy endeavor but somehow that inspired people to work even more closely and more passionately. I think the result is one of Jason’s best films. It started with a wonderful script and continued with a cast and crew that really delivered.”
Helen Estabrook watched as a film that started out complex grew even more complex as each person added their skills and insight. “We always knew this film was going to take in many, many layers—and that it would not be a movie about one thing, but about a lot of things,” she says. “What’s most satisfying is that in every frame of the final film there’s so much going on, yet it’s never telling you what to think. Instead, it’s bringing you deeply into this situation and leaving you with questions you want to talk about.”