Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” about Gary Hart’s doomed 1988 presidential campaign, opens with a fabulous crane shot that puts us in the middle of the insanity of a modern presidential campaign.
It’s 1984, Walter Mondale has just clinched the Democratic nomination, and Reitman pulls us out of a news van, into the crush of supporters and reporters, around to the cynical apparatchiks from the vanquished opponent already counting their party’s nominee out, back to the reporters who are struggling with the newfangled technology delivering news up to the satellites overhead and out to the studios where it shall be broadcast into tens of millions of homes, and then up, up, up to a figure looking high above on the scrum below from the hotel suite of Hart (Hugh Jackman) himself.
This continuous shot does more than suggest the pandemonium, chaos and excitement of electoral victory, as well as the alienating effect of defeat. It also helps us understand how the movie itself will work and provides a clue to the central political problem of our time: Who do we listen to, and what stories matter?
“We wanted to give a shot that kind of educated the audience as to the language we were going to tell this story with,” Reitman said during an interview in the conference room of a Georgetown office. “On one side, filming, the camera is going to move throughout the room. You are going to be introduced to characters, often you won’t know who they are. You’re going to hear things before you see them, and you’re going to have to figure out for yourself which conversations are worth listening to. And that really kind of delves into the overall philosophy of the film, which is: What is relevant? What is important?”
Reitman’s film is based on a book by Matt Bai, currently of Yahoo News and previously of the New York Times Magazine. “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” is slim by the standards of books detailing campaigns, clocking in at 250 pages before the index. But no other book has provided a better road map explaining how we arrived at our current political moment.
Bai’s sympathies seem to lie with Hart, who went from the front-runner in 1988 to an also-ran in the course of a week after the exposure of a possible affair with Donna Rice, a Miami-based model, actress and pharmaceutical sales representative. Hart, a private, personal man — and, thus, one ill-suited for certain aspects of modern, celebritized politics — refused, on principle, to discuss his relationship with Rice, or anyone else for that matter. He simply thought it didn’t matter.
As it turns out, he was wrong. It did matter. But should it have? We are still dealing with the consequences of why it mattered — as well as how, exactly, the press and the public alike decide what matters.
“The reporters, like the operatives, like the candidate in the movie, like the voters and consumers in the movie — I think in all their perspectives were asking the audience, ‘Could you see yourself in that situation? What would you choose?’” Bai, who also co-wrote the film along with Reitman and Jay Carson, said. “Sometimes for me it’s almost like one of those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books where I can see the movie three or four different times, and I can follow a different set of choices to a different end. And I think that’s the whole point of it is to ask would you have made that decision, and if you made that decision differently, would it reverberate differently through the years.”
The team behind “The Front Runner” does not pretend to have answers to this question; as Carson told me, “part of the reason we want to tell this story is to show it in gray, to sort of show the messiness of it. And part of that is just asking the question, and we intentionally don’t answer it, but asking the question of what is relevant and when is it relevant?” Before 1988, reporters were happy to cover for pols cheating on their wives, happy to look the other way because they deemed it be none of the public’s business.
While watching “The Front Runner,” I couldn’t help but think back to the 2012 campaign, when the press’s defining moment came in late July, when Mitt Romney was concluding a European tour with a stop in Poland. “What about your gaffes?” yelled one of the members of the press corps on the tour. Right before interviewing Reitman, Bai and Carson, I had the displeasure of reading a story about Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke apologizing for a line he wrote in a review of a play in college. Our chat took place amid a press frenzy surrounding Brett M. Kavanaugh, one that combined genuine public interest (the credibility of the accusations of Christine Blasey Ford) with downright prurience (debates over drinking game slang and sentence-by-sentence deconstructions of letters the now-Supreme Court justice wrote as a teenager) in ways that were, at best, of questionable benefit to the public sphere.
There’s no use crying for some golden age of civility when all our public figures were treated with respect and dignity; no such time has existed since George Washington’s first inaugural address. And there’s something unseemly about journalists deciding to cover up for politicians stepping out on their wives because you were drinking buddies at the Mayflower. But when you reduce politics to a game in which attacks on character supersede debates about political substance, you risk ushering in an age in which the only people interested in running — and the only people capable of winning — are those who are either saintly or have no character to besmirch.
Unfortunately, in a world of 24/7 cable news where every story has the potential to go instantly viral on Facebook or Twitter, there’s no easy way back.
“What are we bothered by here? Is that the idea of being an adulterer, is it the idea of hypocrisy, or is it simply politicized, and where is this line where publicly meets private? There are no answers for this,” Reitman said, when I asked him if people are more concerned with immorality itself or the hypocrisy of those who claim to be moral acting immorally. “But it’s something we are obsessed about right now, and [‘The Front Runner’] was a way to reflect back upon the audience their own need to answer this question.”