Jason Reitman interview: ‘There’s connective tissue between politicians and movie stars’

Jason Reitman directs a fresh political thriller that questions the role of journalists and candidates in the 1980s and today...

Making a political film in 2018 is a dangerous game – no matter where you fall you’ll be hammered with criticism, so split have opinions and values around US politics become of the past few years. Jason Reitman, however, has taken on the challenge with his new film The Front Runner, which attempts to unseat the audience with a stance that lets the viewer decide what they believe.

The Front Runner is the story of Gary Hart, a politician who briefly ran for US President in 1988 before withdrawing after reports of an affair derailed his campaign. The film follows Hart, his campaign team (led by JK Simmons), journalists breaking the story (led by Alfred Molina), woman in question Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), and his family at home (Vera Farmiga; Kaitlyn Dever).

The obvious comparisons between the Hart ‘era’ and the current political climate in the US are not lost on Reitman, but he told Den of Geek during London Film Festival that it was initially the strangeness of the case that drew him to the project.

“I was immediately taken by all of the connective tissue between this story and 2018, but it just felt like a movie,” he said. “Here you had the next president of the United States in an alleyway in the middle of the night with three journalists and no one knows what to do. And then within a week he leaves politics forever? It sounded like a thriller.”

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Reitman and his other co-writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson drew a lot from the tone of 1972 Robert Redford film The Candidate, which made a similar move in focusing on the characters surrounding the figure of interest, rather than the figure themself.

He continued: “This is my first movie about real events and real people, so in that sense the plot was already written. It became a question of ‘how are we telling this?’. The idea was always to really focus on the people around Hart, and to think about the various audience members and how each of them was going to enter the story.

“You might be a journalist who feels it’s very tricky to be a journalist in 2018 – knowing what people want you to ask, and questions you want to ask, and those your editor wants. Or the editor who wonders whether they even get to control what they publish anymore, or whether they simply have to feed the beast that is curiosity.”

Hugh Jackman might not have been the obvious choice to play a closed-off, dodgy politician, but Reitman was confident that the actor could bring what he needed to the performance.

“If you hear Hugh Jackman’s in a movie, the clear presumption is that he’s heroic, whether he’s being Logan or PT Barnum (in The Greatest Showman),” the director said. “He’s an actor whose heart beats out of his chest, he’s a very emotional actor. You’re surprised when you watch this movie because he’s not even the main character – he’s the object that the twenty main characters are trying to understand.

“He’s an enigma, he’s a guy we desperately want to know but he’s not letting us in. He plays flawed, and gray. His decency is there but it’s also clouded by his choices. I think that was a really brave and interesting choice for him as an actor. I watch as audiences grapple with it.”

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So good was the fit for Reitman, who is known for working with actors such as Charlize Theron and JK Simmons across multiple projects, that he said that the pair are looking for the next project on which they can collaborate.

He added: “There is a connective tissue between politicians and movie stars – a charisma and an ability to deliver material. I dare say if Hugh Jackman ran for congress he’d win in a landslide.”

Despite the timeliness of some of The Front Runner’s issues, Reitman was keen to differentiate the case of Donna Rice and Gary Hart from more serious stories.

“This is not a whistleblower story,” he said. “In 2018 our understanding of stories like these is that they’re about whistleblowers and truth to power, but this is the story of two very private people who ended up in a very public situation. Neither of them has ever said what happened, we don’t know, and Donna Rice was offered something close to $1 million for her story and turned it down.

“It would have been more indecent of me to say what happened when I don’t know,” he added on not coming down on one side or the other. “You can make presumptions, but frankly it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is how we reacted, and the idea that we deserved to know.”

But it’s true that the conversation around the film, no matter what, will focus on the allusions to our current era, and a time when celebrities and politicians have almost become interchangeable.

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“Movies should be an opportunity to reflect our lives and reexamine how we feel about the way we’re living now,” Reitman said. “My job as a filmmaker is not to take you over the finish line, or tell you what to think. My job is to offer questions and then hand you the baton to run with in any direction you wish.

“My thrill is when one audience member has a completely different experience to the one next to them, and the debate that comes from that on the ride home.”

The Front Runner opens in UK cinemas on 11 January 2019