Jason Reitman’s new film looks back at when tabloid journalism merged with political journalism and made it a one-lane highway
The Reitman family is well-known for filmmaking and uncommonly thoughtful paternal advice.
It was famous director Ivan Reitman‘s father, a Holocaust survivor who had come to Canada with nothing, who dissuaded a 17-year-old Ivan from opening a sandwich shop in Montreal. The patriarch, who had made his living operating a dry cleaner and car wash, assured young Ivan that he would likely do quite well making BLTs. “But I think you need to find something that has magic in it,” the father told the son. Ivan Reitman went on to produce Animal House, direct Ghostbusters … and sire Jason Reitman.
One generation later, young Jason enrolled in college to study medicine “for all the wrong reasons,” he says. Mostly to avoid the pitfalls of entering the fraught film industry in the shadow of his famous father. But Ivan surprised Jason by telling him, “Look, there is no more noble a profession than being a doctor … but I think you need to find something that has magic in it.”
And thus, Jason now says: “My dad became the first Jewish father in history to tell his son: ‘Don’t be a doctor. Be a filmmaker.’ ”
On Thursday, the Denver Film Festival presented four-time Oscar nominee Jason Reitman, 41, with the annual John Cassavetes Award, which goes to a film artist who has made a significant contribution to filmmaking and whose work reflects the rebel spirit of the late Cassavetes. Reitman is a director, screenwriter and producer who broke through with Thank You for Smoking in 2005. He received Academy Award nominations for directing Juno, which he introduced to the world at the 2007 Denver Film Festival, and for producing, directing and writing Up in the Air (2009). His latest film is the newly released The Front Runner, the very personal story of the rise and fall of Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who was the clear front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination … for all of three weeks.
“Look, I have no business having my name on an award that also says John Cassavetes on it,” Reitman said Thursday in an exclusive interview with the DCPA NewsCenter. “But it’s significant for me to be here tonight with The Front Runner within the context of that award. The style of the film is hyper-real, messy, humanist – all the things that Cassavetes basically created, along with Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie. The idea that I would be getting this award tonight as I attempted my own version of a film like his is a thrill.”
The Cassavetes Award was established in collaboration with the late director’s wife, Gena Rowlands, in 1989.
“Jason Reitman’s legacy as a filmmaker goes beyond his work as a director,” said Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson. “Jason has been an important and well-respected new voice in today’s Hollywood. From his poignant and touching direction of Juno to the serious drama of Labor Day to his leap into the world of tabloid politics with The Front Runner, Jason continues to deliver powerful, important and pertinent films.”
After the award presentation, The Front Runner was screened to enthusiastic response at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. A scene showing Hart (played by Hugh Jackman) announcing his 1988 candidacy at Red Rocks drew delighted cheers from the Colorado crowd.
Video: The official trailer for The Front Runner
Reitman says The Front Runner is a film that would not exist if not for the influence of Cassavetes, best known for Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen. It’s probably both kismet and coincidence that the newly released final season of the politically themed Netflix series House of Cards includes a quiet scene showing Machiavellian President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) intently watching a scene from Rosemary’s Baby.
“John Cassevetes is the father of the type of cinema that we are trying to emulate in The Front Runner,” said Reitman, who considers Ritchie’s 1972 film The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, to be his North Star in the making of The Front Runner.
Hart had captured the imagination of young voters as the Reagan era was ending, but his world came crashing down around him following the story of a rumored affair with Donna Rice, a woman he met on a yacht named, yes, Monkey Business. The irony was too delicious for the political media to resist, and for the first time, the definition of the political media was expanded to include, however uncomfortably, tabloid rags and late-night comedians such as Johnny Carson.
The press went after Hart hard – at his own naive invitation – and his campaign quickly unraveled. But to the end, Hart never could fully grasp what was happening to him. He straddled the eras between John F. Kennedy, whose infidelities were well-known and largely ignored by the media as irrelevant, and Donald Trump, who stands accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by at least 22 women, at no apparent political cost. The central question of The Front Runner is one of even greater relevance today: How do we distinguish been what is entertainment and what is relevant?
“A lot has happened in the past 30 years,” Reitman said. “It’s been a confusing 30 years. It was Matt Bai (author of the source book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid“) who looked at this story and realized it’s more than a joke with the punchline of a name of a boat. This was a moment when the ground shifted under all of us and put us on the road to where we are today. Like anyone, I look around and I am trying to figure out how the hell we got here. In Matt Bai’s book, and in this story, there are threads to pull on. There are seeds that grew into 2018.
“What has happened since is the ‘celebrification’ of politics. Of tabloid journalism driving into the lane of political journalism. All of which has led to these conversations we are having today about gender politics and what is a public life and what is a private life.”
By videotape, Jackman addressed that same issue with the Ellie Caulkins audience.
“I would say this movie has no real heroes, no real villains,” Jackman said. “It has a bunch of human beings all in the middle of this very tense cauldron that is a political campaign.”
The film never shows the infamous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap as they posed while he was wearing a “Monkey Business Crew” T-Shirt. Neither does it take a position on whether Hart and Rice’s relationship ever became a sexual one. And that enigma, Reitman said, is his whole point. Was it – or is it ever – any of our business? And just because the public’s appetite for salacious details about our leaders had clearly changed and grown, was the media right in feeding it?
“Suddenly we were covering our politicians more like celebrities,” Reitman said. “And Gary Hart said if you create a process that treats politicians like celebrities, you will inevitably get celebrity candidates.”
Or, as Hart himself says in a clip from his 1988 dropout announcement: “You get the leaders you deserve.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.