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Chasing a dream
December 06, 2018
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After Watergate, but before the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, there was Gary Hart.

By every measure, the charismatic Colorado senator was the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, with widespread support from young voters, a command of policy issues, and a knack for connecting with audiences.

But the events of a single week in May 1987 proved a new era was dawning in politics.

“I think the reason people get into politics is because there’s this incredible chess game going on,” said Hugh Jackman, who plays Hart in the new film “The Front Runner,” that opened on Nov. 16 in Denver. “In that way it’s very entertaining, because you’re watching highly intellectual people with immense amounts at stake for every single person on the planet.”

Jackman, an Australian citizen, is speaking broadly about the political sphere. But in “The Front Runner,” directed by 41-year-old Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air,” “Young Adult”), the audience is told a specific tale about Hart’s marital indiscretions and the ripple effect on his campaign, the reporters following him, and politics-at-large ever since.

“We’re living in a moment where politics have become our entertainment,” said Reitman, who attended the Denver Film Festival with “The Front Runner” on Nov. 8 and visited at least one place where real-life scenes took place (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where Hart once held a press conference). “Matt (Bai, one of the screenwriters of ‘The Front Runner’) was kind of brilliant in the way that he picked up on this moment and how things shifted when, within a week, a man went from front runner for the presidency to the centre of our human curiosity, and finally out of the public view.”

Bai, who wrote the 2014 book on which the film is based, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” has a knack for making viewers feel like a fly on the wall in the film’s backroom dealings. But it’s Jackman who embodies Hart, and getting the details right was essential to selling a biographical tone.

“I tried not to put the burden on myself of looking exactly like him,” said Jackman, a Tony- and Emmy-winning chameleon. “I did try to sound like him to some degree. His cadence. His brevity. He had an unusual way for a politician, and he commented on that to me, that he liked that in the movie. ‘I was very matter-of-fact at the press conferences,’ he said. He tried to be simple, powerful and to the point when he spoke.”

Hart, who was born in Ottawa, Kan., on Nov. 28, 1936, graduated from Yale Law School and moved to Denver to practice law, eventually jumping into politics in earnest in the 1970s as he managed campaigns — including George McGovern’s unsuccessful 1972 presidential run. After a committee-filled career in the Senate that began in 1974, he decided it was his time to make his own run for the presidency.

When Hart lost the Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984, he devoted himself to never letting that happen again — so much so that he declined to run for re-election in the Senate in 1986. What happened next would change the way journalists covered politics, decades before the age of social media, 24-hour news cycles and omnipresent smartphone photos and videos.

Essentially, Hart was caught cheating on his wife by a private investigator, which eventually leaked into the press and his campaign shortly after he declared his candidacy. By turns combative, intensely private and moralistic, Hart didn’t do himself any favours when Miami Herald reporters confronted him about a tip they received and Hart denied it, setting himself up for his fall from grace.

The affair he covered up with a woman named Donna Rice, whom he met on a boat called Monkey Business in Florida, was not unique among male politicians at the time. But the public’s interest for lurid details of politicians’ personal lives, and Hart’s very real deceptions, met with journalistic and public fervor to produce a storm that quickly engulfed the once-powerful senator.

Hart put his campaign on ice on May 8, 1987, only a week after the Donna Rice scandal broke. He tried to revive it in December 1987 but it never regained its prior momentum, leading Hart to return to private life shortly thereafter. He has since become a respected public speaker, policy expert and, occasionally, political figure.

But Hart, who is still married to his wife of 60 years, Lee, will always be associated with the spectacular way his presidential campaign imploded.

“It’s too easy in life to point to who the heroes and villains are,” director Reitman said. “The truth was that Gary Hart was an interesting pH-test for the country, and that kind of test has become way more complicated in 2018. You had a guy whose ideas were strong, who was prescient about politics, and he was the frontrunner for a reason. He was also a flawed human being who had made mistakes. It’s a combination of those things that made him interesting.”

The movie makes other not-so-subtle points: Politics and journalism, seemingly at odds, are both portrayed as back-clapping boy’s clubs in the late 1980s, their respective jargon acting as authenticity-validating chatter. Taking liberties with historical facts for the sake of entertainment and clarity is expected at times, as real-life people become composites and dialogue is tweaked and edited.

But like the best fiction, Reitman wants the movie to ring true to its subject matter, even if it’s ultimately his and his collaborators’ view of things.

“I feel as though those rooms (newsrooms and political offices) are similar, and I wanted to portray journalists and campaign operatives all trying to do the right thing in the midst of a scandal that was shifting the ground underneath their feet,” said Reitman, who this year received the John Cassavetes Award from the Denver Film Festival.

“I’m not a journalist or a politician,” he continued. “But I’m lucky in that I got to write a movie with someone who covered five presidential campaigns (Bai) and a press secretary who worked on two presidential campaigns himself (Jay Larson). Their experiences shaped the dynamics of those rooms, and the way these very improvised conversations were constantly being braided through the natural chatter and jokes in the script.”

So what was it really like behind the flashbulbs, the shouted questions and the hurried, heavily guarded trips to and from limousines for Hart himself?

Jackman, mindful of not impersonating Hart or endorsing his mistakes, travelled to Colorado last year to find out.

“He met me at the curb at (Denver International Airport), just before we shot the film in the summer of 2017,” Jackman said. “The back of his jeep was open as I walked up and we shook hands, but as we did, his other hand he placed on my cheek. It was a surprise to me, and affectionate. I immediately felt close to him and a paternal-type feeling. He also makes a mean martini, I have to tell you, and has a great sense of humour. He was very generous to open his home up to me, answer my questions and allow me to stay a couple nights with him.”

While various scenes in “The Front Runner” are set in or mention Colorado locales — from Red Rocks, Stapleton International Airport, and the Brown Palace to Hart’s campaign offices in Denver and his mountain cabin in the aptly named Troublesome Gulch — none of the film was shot here, owing to a lack of state incentives, Jackman said. (Most of it was filmed in Georgia, which has robust incentives.)

“The modern reality of filmmaking has got a lot to do with rebates from state governments, and it’s a shame, but hopefully people don’t notice that,” he said, adding that he did try to channel Colorado’s overall pioneering spirit. “I’ve been there several times and I love it. I love the people, and there’s also a spirituality to the place that I recognise when I go to the outback of Australia. It has that majesty to it.”

It’s less work than it may sound like; there’s a certain thrill in seeing a multimillion-dollar film take chances with complicated scenes, and shoving its actors out of their comfort zones.

“That was always Jason’s vision,” Jackman said. “We all watched (1972’s) ‘The Candidate’ together to get a sense of the tone that he wanted. He wanted something very realistic, but the way he achieved that on-set was something I’ve never seen before.

Tribune News Service


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