Jason Reitman is looking over a crossword puzzle when I meet him in a conference room at an Austin hotel. Neither of us can remember where a particular shrine in Japan is. (The answer ended up being “Nagoya,” which was particularly embarrassing seeing as how the A was right there.)
He was in town during the Austin Film Festival to discuss “The Front Runner,” his new movie about Gary Hart, which opens this week. Hart's rise to become the 1988 presumptive Democratic nominee for president — and spectacular fall from that great height after accusations of an extramarital affair — might or might not have inaugurated our current political era.
“It’s interesting,” Reitman says of his recent round of interviews. “I talk mostly about politics these days. Not much talking about movies. Not much talking about cameras and casts and editing.”
Reitman, who was born in Canada in 1977 but raised on Hollywood film sets (his father is director Ivan Reitman), had never heard of the Hart scandal until three years ago.
“I heard this Radiolab piece on Gary Hart, centered around Matt Bai's book on the subject,” Reitman says, “and could not believe that it happened, that this guy was the presumed next president and wound up in the middle of the night in his alleyway with some journalists and no one knew what to do.”
Reitman says the movie immediately started playing in his head: “It seemed to have all this connective tissue with all the questions that we're asking today about gender politics, where does a public life start and a private life end, not to mention the complicated relationship of political candidates and journalists.”
As with many movies based on real events, some of “The Front Runner” is straight from the videotape, while some involves composite characters.
“That’s the tricky part of a film,” Reitman says. “That final press conference where he's asked about adultery, we have the footage. We know what happened, we know what was said. This confrontation that you got in New York with the publisher of the Miami Herald, real event, real footage. But certain things were in private rooms, and you just have to kind of presume. But at the end of the day, the purpose of the film is to get at the emotional truth.”
Speaking of emotional truth, “The Front Runner” does not look like a movie set in the 1980s. Which is not to say it doesn’t look like the 1980s. There are a lot of muted browns, blues, some reds. If politics is Hollywood for ugly people, it is also Hollywood for the not-fashion-forward.
“The '80s are tough, because our image of the '80s comes from MTV,” Reitman says. “But if you look at the footage of politics in the '80s, it was brown. Gray and brown. And we were also strangely looking at it through the lens of the 1970s, because that was the cinematic style that we had decided to approach the film through.”
At the center of it all is Hugh Jackman, an actor not exactly known for playing down-to-earth fellows, as Hart, a man determined to be the first Democrat from the West to be elected president.
“Hugh is one of our great movie stars, and he has obviously cosmetic similarities to Gary Hart,” Reitman says. “But I also knew there was something in this movie that he had never done before. He's a guy who kind of most notably plays a showman, and here, he had to play an enigma, like, someone who we'd desperately want to understand. There is a decency to Hugh Jackman that I think is really core to the portrayal of Gary Hart.”
Jackman is at the film’s center, but the movie works best when it focuses on the quotidian aspect of a national campaign, wherein policy visions are often articulated in the same conversation as who has to pay the pizza guy.
“In political movies, everyone is always making the Gettysburg Address, and we wanted to make a movie that echoed real life,” Reitman says. “From the very beginning we're just presenting so much information. People are overlapping, multiple conversations simultaneously. There's a messiness to it that echoes life, hopefully.”
Speaking of messiness, Reitman get a tad defensive at the notion that “follow me around” was maybe not the smartest thing for Hart to say to reporters. (It is presented in “The Front Runner” as a tossed-off comment.)
“The quote came out after they were following him,” Reitman says. “I think this is a guy who presumed a private life at a time when it was fair to presume a private life, and the rest of the world decided, no, you don't have a private life anymore.
“You have a guy who's genuinely smart, genuine big ideas, turns out proves to be prescient about a number of things, from Islamic terrorism to kind of a computer-based economy, and is Kennedy-esque, is actually a great candidate and a potentially great president. Simultaneously, human being, complicated marriage, separated a couple times, met a woman privately on a boat, had chemistry, invited her to his townhouse, flawed, made mistakes.
"This is the question that I'm interested in that I don't have an answer to," Reitman says. "This is why I made the movie. We make movies because we have questions. I don't know what that line is. I know we're trying to figure it out, and it's gotten way messier.”