There are plenty of films on display here at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend with strong political connections such as documentaries like Charles Ferguson’s multi-part Watergate – Or How We Learned To Stop An Out-of-Control President (any similarity to present-day is clearly intentional); Ed Zwick’s Trial By Fire which strongly advocates for changes in the Texas criminal justice system and is a movie former Governor and current Trump cabinet secretary Rick Perry will not be pleased with; Reversing Roe (an argument against politicizing abortion); and even Universal’s Neil Armstrong film, First Man which caused an absurdly ridiculous dust-up on the internet (from Marco Rubio among others who haven’t seen it) that it was not paying proper respect to the planting of the American flag on the moon.
The latter is truly an absurd, politically motivated charge for a superb film from director Damien Chazelle that, otherwise, successfully touched ground on the mountain here coming straight from its triumph in Venice. I can’t think of another movie that truly makes you prouder to be an American than this one and it does it in ways that are entirely not jingoistic at all.
However, the most overtly political movie at Telluride this year is also one of its most entertaining — and potentially commercial — selections. Director Jason Reitman returns to Telluride for the fourth time with The Front Runner, the story of how a sexual scandal became a media sensation that doomed the surefire 1988 Presidential candidacy of Democratic Senator Gary Hart only a few weeks after he announced and was deemed the instant front runner to beat then VP George Bush. It is a story that really hits home since Hart was the Senator from Colorado and announced his candidacy here three decades before this smart and pointedly sharp film would debut in the very same Rockies.
Hart, now 81, still lives in the state, and Reitman tells me Hart and his wife Lee actually saw the film a couple of days ago. Scheduled to open November 21, Hugh Jackman is simply superb and captures the essence of Hart in a remarkable performance as the Senator who got caught up in a tabloid political scandal, accused of having clandestine encounters with a young woman named Donna Rice which he vehemently denies but refused to talk about, preferring instead to stick to the issues. This was just before the dam burst on exposing the private lives of our leaders and, thirty years later, has much to say about where it has all led to in the current state of affairs, so to speak. Hart believed his private life was exactly that, private, and that was his downfall. The media culture was changing big time and he got caught up in it.
Reitman enlisted two political pros to write the script with him, including Matt Bai, author of the book on which it is based, and former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson. In an interview here in Telluride this morning after last night’s World Premiere, I spoke to Reitman and Jackman about the experience of making this film in this climate. Reitman pointed to an Oscar-winning 1972 film as the blueprint for what he and his writers wanted to bring to the Hart story. “The Candidate was the film all of us would watch. We all sat and watched it and kind of examined the way into that movie, the way so often in that film the most important things are happening in the background, and the most innocuous things in the foreground, and the way the movie is kind of pushing you as a viewer to find out what is important as you follow the screen. It was also the enigma of the performance at the center of it and how we are supposed to feel about this candidate that became a big conversation for us for Gary Hart who is kind of an enigma himself,” said Reitman.
For Jackman, who never before has played a real person still residing on the planet, it meant a special effort. “Obviously I met Gary. I have never played someone who is alive. I have played real-life characters who are no longer with us, but it felt like a massive responsibility and that’s not just lip service. I felt that and I was nervous about it right up until probably last night (when the film first screened),” he said. “When you get to know someone, their family, and their life, it takes on a whole new level of importance and we did a lot of research about the time, the events, his upbringing, a lot of video. I watched a lot of video. The biggest challenge was he is an enigma in the true sense of the word. As an actor, all our training is about understanding character, understanding every motivation, and making clear choices. When you are playing a character where the overall effect is so mercurial and mysterious, and enigmatic it’s a real challenge to play because you have to give a lot of faith to the process, the director, the script. I felt it was a journey I loved going on and working with Jason was just phenomenal. The short answer is it took a lot of work.”
Reitman mentions that at the center of this film was a complicated hero, a brilliant man more interested in the issues, who was compromised by his inability to deal with a personal crisis. “It gives you complicated feelings. It has a complicated hero at the center of it. The heroes in my films have been literally a tobacco lobbyist (Thank You For Smoking), a pregnant teenage girl (Juno), a guy who fires people for a living and tries to ruin a marriage (Up In The Air). These are my X-Men, my DC superheroes. But the filmmaking approach (for Front Runner) was different. We wanted this to feel as real as possible, we wanted this to feel as alive as possible, we wanted the narrative to feel untraditional,” Reitman explained, while also pointing out the voice of women became a significant part of the screenplay’s puzzle.
“This is a film that has a dozen points of views. This is a 1987 prism that allows us to explore a variety of subjects of 2018 and one, in particular, is gender politics. And there is no one point of view on the Gary Hart scandal and I presume people will watch it and get in very heated conversations, particularly 2018 types of conversations as they try to figure out what is right and what is wrong here because it is not clear, and it was very important from moment one to have strong female voices,” he said noting that his producing partner Helen Estabrook was key in urging him to include those voices. Vera Farmiga is excellent as Lee Hart, and there is a terrific supporting cast.
Interestingly it was the picture of Hart with Donna Rice on his lap on a boat called Monkey Business that most people now associate with that scandal, but the photo is not in the movie. At Saturday afternoon’s raucously well-received screening, Reitman made it a point to tell the audience not to expect it in the movie because in reality, that photo didn’t even surface until months after the events of the film and Hart’s withdrawal from the race.
As for Hart and his wife’s (they are still married) opinion of the film, Reitman says he thinks it would only be appropriate coming from them. He did say Rice has also seen it. “She was knocked out by the performances (Sara Paxton is excellent playing her) and just could not believe how well Hugh did as Gary Hart. And more importantly, she was moved by the compassion for her as a character, which is something I think she has been searching for decades,” he said of her reaction.
This is Jackman’s first visit to the Telluride Film Festival but he told me it won’t be his last. “I love Telluride. Immediately you feel an energy like nowhere else. It is simultaneously a celebration of film, while at the same time very relaxed and very chilled. It is a great honor. I didn’t realize how few films are selected to be here. I didn’t realize how short the festival was and it’s this crucible of film lovers, great films, beautiful location. It’s amazing. I could find myself coming back every year,” he said.
I asked Jackman if being a celebrity in this day and age means giving up your privacy, and if he could imagine going through what Hart did. “I feel privacy is possible. I never went through any crucible like Gary Hart went through. I thank my lucky stars every day that I was happily married and still happily married before anything happened. I was also 30 when any kind of fame came to me. And some of those happenstances I am grateful for to this day and thank God I wasn’t 16,” he laughed. “I do think it’s possible. It is never lost on me the opportunities that I have, and my children ask me these questions ‘if you knew you were gonna be famous would you still do it?’, and I say ‘I knew I wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to be famous’ and I am so blessed to work with people like Jason, with actors like those in the film. I say treat fame like it was a traffic jam, so if someone gave you a beautiful car to drive and said every now and again the traffic’s gonna be pretty bad, you might get frustrated, but you’d still take the car. And so I take the path of least resistance and generally it has not been an issue.”