Director Jason Reitman hit the Philadelphia Film Festival recently to introduce his new movie, The Front Runner, opening Friday, about the fateful few weeks in May 1987 when sex scandal demoted the presidential candidate Gary Hart from favorite to also-ran.
Reitman drew on journalist Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out for much of the film's material, but he also talked to folks involved in the scandal, including Hart, 81, who is still active in environmental and national security issues.
So, what did Hart think of the project?
"How would you feel if you knew someone were going to make a movie about you, and it was focused on the worst weeks of your life?" Reitman said.
A rhetorical question, but the movie takes a sympathetic view of Hart and his stance at the time, which was that his private life was out of bounds, or in any case vastly less important than the policy issues he was advancing.
Hart (Hugh Jackman) was leading in the polls when the Miami Herald received a tip that he was hosting a woman, Donna Rice, at his Washington residence while his wife (played by Vera Farmiga in the film) remained in the candidate's home state of Colorado.
Additional details fed the story: Hart had met the woman on a boat called Monkey Business, and a notorious picture circulated of Rice sitting suggestively in Hart's lap. This did not help the credibility of Hart's denials. Reporters staked out his house and confronted him about Rice; this was after Hart batted away rumors of extra-marital affairs by telling reporters that if they followed him around, they'd be bored.
The movie looks at Hart and his candidacy, but also at what was changing in journalism.
"In '86, and '87, it's near the invention of the satellite truck, which helped create the 24-hour news cycle. You had CNN giving satellite phones to all their correspondents so they could provide coverage at anytime, anywhere," Reitman said. "At the same time, you had the advent of news and entertainment shows like A Current Affair going on TV, so this tabloid journalism that we used to see confined to the supermarket checkout lines was now on TV every night. And it affected political journalism."
Editors at mainstream publications like the Washington Post are seen in the movie conceding that their content choices are increasingly dictated by what is dominating the tabloid-fed news cycle — all elements now accelerated by social media.
"At at this moment, with all of these forces converging, in walks Gary Hart, who as a politician is talented and prescient about so many things — the political restlessness of the middle class, the coming of a computer-based economy and the inequality it would foster — but for whatever reason had this huge blind spot when it comes to his personal life, and how that is inevitably going to become part of the American political landscape. And he basically just walks into the wood chipper," Reitman said.
Yes, but before he walked into the wood chipper, he did climb aboard the Monkey Business.