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Hugh Jackman And Jason Reitman Talk Media, Authenticity And Gary Hart's 'Superpower'

Hugh Jackman plays 1988 Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart in The Front Runner. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)
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By Marialexa Kavanaugh & Darby Maloney

After voting today, you can go to the movies and revisit another election, one from 30 years ago. The Front Runner tells the story of how an extramarital affair derailed once promising presidential candidate Gary Hart, a Democratic senator.

In 1987, Hart dared the media to follow him around in efforts to discount the rumors of affairs. It didn't work out for him -- the media camped outside his Washington townhouse on a night when a woman named Donna Rice was visiting him. Their relationship was subsequently memorialized in a photo of Hart and Rice together -- next to a boat named "Monkey Business."

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Hart, played in the film by Hugh Jackman, never confirmed or denied the affair -- not even to his own campaign staff. The story helped lead the media to abandon the then-unwritten rules around what was fair game to ask politicians. Hart ended up dropping out of the race, but made a point to warn voters how democracy could be wounded by these recent events.

We talked with Jackman and director Jason Reitman about the film:

"This is one of the great ironies of Gary who probably, if he has one superpower as a politician, it was being able to see 10 years ahead, 20 years ahead," Jackman told us when we spoke with him and Reitman ahead of the movie's Telluride Film Festival premiere. "In this particular aspect of media and the media's coverage of politics, he was blind to that."

Reitman was quick to point out the tragedy in Hart's lack of foresight at how the media would impact his career, saying that his political wisdom would have been invaluable today.

American politician Gary Hart sits on a dock with Donna Rice on his lap, 1987. (Photo by National Enquirer/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Getty Images)

"Here's a guy who really was ahead of the game both on a broad spectrum, but also in these unbelievable anecdotal details, understanding our reliance on oil in the Middle East, predicting 9/11, understanding the importance of computers in our lives -- and wanted to legislate these ideas in a very real way," Reitman said.

Hours before The Front Runner premiered at Telluride, Reitman showed the film to the real-life Gary Hart and his wife in another part of Colorado.

"You know, it was nerve-racking. I had never made a film about real people," Reitman said. "We had a really lovely, thoughtful conversation, and all of them weigh in on the movie when they want to. I will say that both of them really admired Hugh's performance. They thought it was incredible, and at one point Gary said, 'Do I really talk like that?' And [his wife] Lee said 'Yes, yes that's exactly how you speak.'"

This was also Jackman's first time portraying someone who's still alive today. Having grown up in Australia, his knowledge of 1980s American politics was limited when he started this project. His way into the role came through extensive research.

"I take every job very seriously, but perhaps this had another level for me," Jackman said. "I watched a lot of video. I spent a lot of time talking with people who'd worked with him. The number one thing that kept coming back to me was how much of an enigma he is as a public and private figure -- to campaign members, people close to him, reporters, everybody. And that of course, as an actor, is one of the most daunting things. When you train as an actor, it's about making choices, understanding motivation, it's 'What am I playing in this scene?' And with Gary, it's never one thing."

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The question of truth plays a major role in the film. Reitman wanted influence from people inside and outside of the campaign to give this theme the most complete examination he could. Reitman co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Bai, a prominent political journalist, and Jay Carson, a former press secretary and campaign insider.

"I think the guiding principle was them filling this movie with as much real detail from their lives as possible," Reitman said. "What is it like to be in a campaign room? What is it really like to be working at a newspaper? It can't be just, 'important conversations all the time.' I bet you're talking about a lot of bulls--- too."

April 1984: American politician Gary Hart speaking during his campaign for nomination as Democratic presidential candidate. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The movie tried to replicate the buzz that press rooms and campaign HQs often have.

"Three things must be happening at all times on screen -- one important and two ridiculous," Reitman said. "And so how do we fill all of that with authentic detail so when you are in the movie, even if you've never worked at a paper, even if you've never been on a campaign, even if you don't understand half the things that are happening, you go, 'Oh yeah, this feels real'?"

While journalists played a key role in Hart's political demise, both Reitman and Jackman felt it was important not to vilify them. Instead, they wanted to give some insight into the pressures that reporters face when covering campaigns.

For Jackman, personal experience provided a clear window into those pressures.

"I don't feel that I experience celebrity journalism in the way that people expect," Jackman said. "Occasionally I do. I generally have a kind of empathy for most journalists, and I know when they're asking me a question that they're embarrassed by or feel is beneath them. I studied journalism. Our last class was ethics in journalism. For me, it put me off going into the business. I realized how difficult it is."

For everyone that played a part in making The Front Runner, it was critical that Hart's message be tied in with where we are today, and how we got here.

"This is why we're making movies. We're looking for answers, we're trying to answer these questions, and I'm really just hoping that the movie offers one more angle so that we can have a rational conversation about a world that is very confusing right now," Reitman said. "This is the film that offers a prism of 1987 to look at today. It's tricky to talk about 2018 without getting into an argument. We're kind of tearing each other apart at this point."

The Front Runner is in theaters now. And the polls are open today.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

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