‘Front Runner’ Writers Detail the Turning Point in Media Coverage of Politics

Matt Bai Jay Carson The Front Runner Producers
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstoc

For anyone who’s overdosing on U.S. politics, which is pretty much the entire world at this point, the idea of a film on the subject may give you pause.

However, Sony’s “The Front Runner,” which opens wide Nov. 21, is highly recommended because it offers a smart and important perspective on how we got to this point. It’s also entertaining.

“Front Runner” is the first produced screenplay for Matt Bai and Jay Carson, who together have 40 years of experience in politics, respectively as a reporter and a campaign consultant — i.e. operative.

“Whether you care about politics or not, this is a story of human beings struggling with extraordinary circumstances,” Carson says.

Bai adds that even for non-fans of U.S. politics, it’s a chance to see the work of expert filmmakers. “You’re also going to see an amazing ensemble of actors and great lead actor [Hugh Jackman], all at the top of their game.”

In adapting his 2014 book “All the Truth Is Out” (Penguin/Random House), Bai says: “We weren’t looking to make a message movie or preach to the choir. We wanted to ask the audience tough questions.”

The studios are iffy about greenlighting grown-up films these days, especially political ones. And this film doesn’t offer easy answers. So it was an uphill battle until they met Jason Reitman. When he read their script, he said, “I like your writing but I can see you got a lot of Hollywood notes. Let’s do the version you want to do.”

Reitman became their co-writer and director. “Jason gave us the freedom to do it,” Bai says. “Let the audience figure out what’s important, what’s appropriate, and who’s the hero [or villain].”

The film depicts 1987 as a perfect storm. Before that, the sex life of a politician was off-limits to the media. But there was a new generation of Woodward-Bernstein-wannabe journalists, and the successful 1986 launch of “A Current Affair” tabloid-TV show proved that the public was hungry for scandalous “news.” It was a turning point, when personalities and gossip outweighed the issues.

The film deliberately avoids answering the question whether presidential front-runner Gary Hart, a married man, was having an affair with Donna Rice: The “did they do it” question is less relevant than the reactions of Hart, his family, campaign strategists, journalists and, crucially, the public.

“I went into politics with idealism and left it with my spirit broken,” Carson says. “So with this script, I was trying to find out why that happened.”

The two have been friends for years, and Bai scrupulously credits Carson with the observation that “politics is a human pursuit; it’s a human drama and it’s easy to forget that there are people at the core of it.”

Despite their backgrounds in politics and the repercussions of 1987, the scriptwriting forced them to find new perspectives. Bai says in writing characters, “You have a more complex understanding of how difficult the dilemmas are for everyone. I think that’s especially true with the women in the film, Lee
Hart and Donna Rice, who was the first person to ever go through something like this; a lot of people didn’t take her seriously as a three-dimensional person. We wanted to look at this from a woman’s perspective.”

Another unusual fact: Reitman wanted his co-writers on the set with him for the entire movie.
Though it was new for them, the filmmaking process brought up a lot of reminders of the difficult days on the campaign trail.

“It’s a similar atmosphere, where you get thrown together with people and forge a bond in a short period of time and challenge each other to do better work,” Bai says. “The similarity between a campaign and filmmaking was kinda staggering.”

Carson adds: “It was life imitating art imitating life. And it was PTSD-inducing sometimes for Matt and me. The making of it felt so much like a real campaign that it was often shocking.”