Yesterday was a big Front Runner day at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Director-cowriter Jason Reitman and Best Actor contender Hugh Jackman were given the full media-glow, red-carpet treatment, and took bows before last night’s screening. But for me the most interesting moment happened during an afternoon discussion with Reitman in front of an audience of SCAD students.
The Front Runner (Sony, 11.6) is about the tragic saga of former Colorado Senator and 1988 Presidential candidate Gary Hart (Jackman), a decent, thoughtful, fairly brilliant politician who occasionally catted around and who made a really big mistake in the matter of Donna Rice. But what Hart did was almost nothing, of course, compared to the daily obscenities of Donald Trump.
And so, Reitman said, The Front Runner “becomes a really compelling story in 2018, when we are trying to figure out for ourselves, all the time, what kind of flaws are we willing to put up with in our leaders? [Because we now have] the most flawed leader imaginable, right? He’s completely indecent.”
Almost no one in the audience (i.e., mostly SCAD students) knew who Hart was or about the fuck-up that killed his Presidential campaign — an episode that was partly about Hart’s nature or character, but more profoundly about a moment in our history when political reporting suddenly became tabloidy, which is to say personally invasive, distracting and gutter-level.
Hollywood Elsewhere believes that occasionally putting the high, hard one to this or that willing recipient has nothing to do, in and of itself, with being a good or bad Senator, Congressperson or President.
Towards the end of the discussion I asked Reitman if he would have used James Fallows‘ recently reported story about Lee Atwater as a plot thread in The Front Runner, had he known about it early enough.
Atwater was a Republican operative who reportedly made a deathbed confessession about having “set Hart up” with the whole Monkey Business episode.
Reitman said that the confession wasn’t really central to The Front Runner — that it was more of an interesting Atwater anecdote than anything else. Here’s an mp3 of Reitman’s whole response to my question.
Fallows’ story was reported in a recent Atlantic article. But when Reitman asked the SCAD students if any of them knew who Atwater was, none raised their hands.
The final takeaway of the film, Reitman said, is that “if you’re someone who experiences shame, you drop out of the race. But if you’re someone who doesn’t experience shame, you stay in and you thrive. We now have a system” — not just a governmental or journalistic or electoral system, he implied, but also a moralistic one — “that favors the shameless.”
Once again, the SCAD students knew nothing about Hart, Atwater, Rice, what happened to Hart…none of it. A widely reported calamity that happened only 30 years ago and was roughly in the same political-scandal realm as Watergate or the Pentagon Papers or Iran-Contra or the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky thing, and they were totally clueless.
But when the moderator mentioned the kaput romance between Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, you could tell right away they were fully up to speed.