The Austin Chronicle

Handicapping The Front Runner

By Richard Whittaker, November 20, 2018, 7:00am, Picture in Picture

When does the private life of a politician become a matter of public concern? “I have no idea,” Jason Reitman said. But in the age of #MeToo and the Access Hollywood tapes, he said, “We’re trying to figure it out more than ever.”

That’s the theme at the heart of his latest film, The Front Runner. Co-written by Reitman, journalist Matt Bai (upon whose book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, the script is based), and political strategist Jay Carson (formally a senior staffer to President Bill Clinton, plus the basis for Ryan Gosling’s character in The Ides of March), it chronicles the catastrophic collapse of the 1988 presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart. As played by Hugh Jackman, he went from the face of a fresh and burgeoning new Democratic party to a laughing stock and completely out of politics in less then three weeks. In Reitman’s retelling, this was the moment when political journalism abandoned any pretense of being about policy, and instead became about personality, gossip, and sex scandals.

What’s happened is that it’s become hard to tell the difference between hard news and TMZ. Sex scandals have become common currency: What was, in the era of JFK, an open secret became a career killer, and defeating a rape allegation is now seen as a badge of honor in some circles. Yet everything is focused through the medium of clickbait – to the detriment, Reitman argues of the body politic. He said, “We used to talk about The Sopranos episode the next day, but we don’t now. We talk about politics as if it’s entertainment.”

Much as with Reitman’s earlier works, The Front Runner is less about providing a definitive statement on a cultural phenomenon (such as social media in Men, Women & Children) than forcing the audience to at least consider the question. For Reitman, voters are faced with “this combination of celebrification of the candidates and, simultaneously, the way that we consume journalism. I’m like everybody else. I wake up, I look at the news app, and I go, ‘Fuck!’”

Austin Chronicle: This was the first presidential primary I remember, because it was everywhere in the political cartoons. Even Bloom County took a shot at him.

Jason Reitman: And that's what’s interesting about it. Because it’s one week. It's a thriller. The guy goes from being the next president to leaving politics forever, and when I would tell people I was doing the Gary Hart story, they would go, ‘Oh, Monkey Business.’ Yeah. They’d go, ‘What was that blonde’s name? Oh, Donna Rice.’ And they would talk about it like it was a joke they had heard 30 years ago. It’s not a joke. This is an important moment, in which the dynamic of many things shifts [snaps his fingers] like that.

It’s interesting to me how people misremember this story. They remember it as Gary Hart challenging reporters to follow him around, and so they did – which is inaccurate. They remember this photograph, and they think it took him out of the race when in fact it came out after the fact. They only think about these comic details, like the name of a boat. They don't think about, alright, how did the relationship between journalists and candidates change right there and then? How did we suddenly become so interested in people’s personal lives? We don’t think, does this matter? Is this relevant, or not? This affair between two private people that happened on a boat, how does this affect the political landscape? And we don’t. We just kind of talk about how the funny the name of the boat is.

AC: The number of times we’ve had conversations in the newsroom where we’ve literally gone, who gives a fuck? But you catch that dilemma with the discussions in the Washington Post newsroom, where the first instinct is that it’s not really news, but then the discussion is, well, if we don’t cover it and everyone else does, then we become the story.

JR: That’s a real [Post Executive Editor] Ben Bradlee quote. He said that to David Frost.

[inset-1-right]AC: But then it becomes the question of priorities. Reporters only have so much bandwidth, and if you start talking about which state rep is hanging out with which lobbyist, is that the actual news, or does something more impactful but less sexy, less gossipy, get pushed to the side?

JR: You’re 100% right, and Matt Bai would agree with you 100% – that there is only so much bandwidth, and particularly when we talk about sex, which is white hot, just this white hot topic. When you start talking about sex, it’s almost impossible to start talking about anything else, and we want to click that button.

AC: It’s especially an issue in American politics, because American culture still has a thick strand of puritanism. People always joke about French politicians and their mistresses, but it is a thing. Unless it’s a situation that’s deeply problematic, like assault, or there’s an intelligence issue. But most of the time people just go, well, OK, but how does that affect policy? But America seems to want to know all the prurient details, and then still get to say ‘Tsk, tsk, tsk.’

JR: Obviously we’re living in an age where sex has become an important conversation, and we’ve taken important steps forward, culturally, in terms of sexual assault and harassment and workplace violations. The women’s movement has found this profound pace right now that’s really important. But we have to also weigh that against the way we consume journalism.

AC: And part of the way we consume stories, it’s an aspect of the internet. If you go to the New York Times’ Twitter feed, each tweet has the same importance. But when you pick up a paper and it has sections, you have a process where it’s sorted and curated – hard news is on A1, metro is B1, and then ‘local duck farmer finds gold ring on a goose’s neck’ is E3.

JR: And entertainment is G.

AC: But online, that sorting isn’t there.

JR: And how do you get people to click, which was never the case.

AC: Speaking of making choices, what was it that drew you to Gary Hart?

JR: Two things. One, it was a movie that started playing in my head the instant I heard it. This thriller of a guy in his alleyway with these reporters, and it felt like a Western standoff in the middle of a film noir. And also this thing I said earlier of trying to understand our times. That’s what we’re all trying to do right now, and this felt like there were threads to pull on in terms of gender dynamics, in terms of public versus private and journalists versus candidates.

The Front Runner opens in Austin theaters today. For review and showtimes, see our listings page.

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