TORONTO — Collectively, Montreal-raised filmmaker Jason Reitman, American journalist Matt Bai and one-time political operative Jay Carson half-jokingly refer to themselves the “three-headed monster of popular culture.”
But in an age when the lines between entertainment, journalism and politics have been blurred, perhaps there’s no more appropriate trio to bring the story where “The Front Runner” team says it all began to the big screen.
“The Front Runner” serves as a cinematic tick-tock of the doomed 1988 U.S. presidential bid of former Colorado senator Gary Hart, who in a matter of weeks went from being the leading contender for the Democratic Party nomination, to becoming one of the first political casualties of the modern American sex scandal, according to the film’s reading of history, and the personal became political in a way that would alter American democracy.
It was in that moment that a fuse was lit that burns straight to today, Carson said, and one could argue “exploded” a few years ago — and while he does not mention U.S. President Donald Trump by name, it’s not hard to infer what the source of the purported explosion might be.
“I’m like anyone else alive today, I think. I look around and I wonder, ‘How the hell did we get here?'” director Reitman said in an interview with his co-screenwriters at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“There was this thread that I wanted to pull on. It was a story that spoke to so many of the questions we seem to have right now about … what kind of flaws are we willing to put up with in a leader, and where does the line between public and private start and end?”
In the movie, Hart, played by Australian actor Hugh Jackman, is an axe-throwing policy wonk whose steely demeanour only falters in the presence of comely young women. When his infidelity is clumsily uncovered by a group of reporters, Hart reacts to the scandal with righteous indignation how the violation of his private life fits into a broader deterioration of the public discourse.
The film also shows the internal deliberations of newsroom veterans mourning the days when reporters had no place inside the bedrooms of politicians, while sensation-seeking upstarts drive media outlets into a journalistic arms race to hunt down lurid headlines.
For Bai, who wrote the 2014 book on which “The Front Runner” based, conducting a journalistic autopsy of what the media missed in covering the Hart affair — including his own profile on the then-retired senator in the early 2000s — forced him to confront uncomfortable truths about what information high-minded reporters would deem to be in the public interest versus the stories the public is interested in.
“That was the moment, when for a lot of factors that made it inevitable, politics and entertainment in the U.S. collided. From that moment on, politicians became more like celebrities, and less like public servants,” said Bai, a national political columnist for Yahoo! News.
“I think that collision manifests itself, in different ways, throughout all the decades that followed it, and of course, became self-evident to everybody in this moment, and I think that’s part of the searing relevance of this story.”
Carson, who was press secretary for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign, is all too familiar with pressure on candidates to be both versed in the issues and charmed with the gift of charisma. In former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, he said, the electorate chose candidates with a proven record of governance and a prowess for public oration, but Carson fears the scales have now tipped too far in one direction with a former reality TV star occupying the Oval Office.
“Look what we have today — pure entertainer, absolutely no idea how to do the job — the entertainer part becomes the most important part of the job in a way that it hadn’t before,” said Carson.
This has given rise to a “broken system,” said Reitman, that punishes candidates who possess the many of the qualities one would traditionally associate with strong leadership — integrity, accountability, a mastery of the bureaucratic business of government — and instead rewards “shamelessness.”
“In the current system, if you’re someone who experiences shame, you drop out of the race,” said Reitman. “If you’re someone who does not experience shame, not only do you stay in, but you succeed, you soar.”
“The Front Runner” raises questions about whether a candidate’s sexual proclivities should factor into their viability for office, he said. But as a member of Hollywood, Reitman acknowledges that we’re in the midst of a “conflicted moment” in reckoning with the relationship between sex and abuses of power.
“Sex, it’s white hot. It’s a subject that once it comes up, it’s very hard to talk about anything else,” said Reitman.
“That makes it a very conflicted moment because there’s a very important conversation about sexuality that’s happening in 2018 … and at the same time, we have to remember that when we talk about sex, we’re not talking about other things.”
Sitting around a coffee table in a swanky downtown Toronto hotel, it would be easy to caricature Reitman, Carson and Bai as members of the so-called elites that populist politicians like Trump often accuse of working to indoctrinate the masses with their liberal agenda.
But it’s just that sort of divisive rhetoric that Reitman said “The Front Runner” is trying to interrogate and, away from the social media silos and screaming matches that dominate today’s politics, will hopefully inspire the same self-reflection among audience members that it has in the “three-headed monster” behind the film’s making.
“We’re not coming with answers, we’re coming with questions, and it’s going to bounce differently off of every audience member,” said Reitman. “To have this story from 30 years ago, this prism through which we can actually have a conversation, and really challenge some of our thoughts … (instinctively), it felt right.”
“The Front Runner” hits theatres in Toronto and Vancouver on Nov. 16, before opening in additional Canadian cities on Nov. 21.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press