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‘Front Runner’ Director Jason Reitman Explains How Gary Hart Changed Elections Forever

With the country in the grip of midterm election fever Tuesday, Sony Pictures is opening the Hugh Jackman political drama “The Front Runner” in two theaters in Los Angeles and two in New York City.

Jason Reitman, director of “The Front Runner,” told Variety that his film is especially relevant now — even though the events in it took place 31 years ago. And he’s riveted by the current election.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” he admitted. “Today feels like a mystery because the country is so divided. The movie asks questions that are very timely — about how we consume news and what is relevant versus what is private.”

Jackman brings Gary Hart to life as a charismatic presidential candidate whose campaign crashes and burns in 1987, thanks to the revelation of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice. The Miami Herald newspaper followed Rice on a flight from Miami to Washington, D.C., then staked out Hart’s townhouse that evening, observed the young woman and Hart together and published the story. Hart withdrew three weeks later.

It’s said to be the first time that a film has been released on Election Day. Reitman directed from a script he wrote with veteran political journalist Matt Bai and former press secretary for Hillary Clinton, Jay Carson, and is based on Bai’s 2014 book, “All the Truth Is Out.”

Reitman, who’s been nominated for five Academy Awards for “Up in the Air” and “Juno,” said he didn’t plan to have “The Front Runner” open during this particular election, given that it’s been in the works for three years.

“There was a moment where I thought of Gary Hart in the alley by the townhouse and thought ‘that’s a movie,” he said. “We began writing it in 2015. Matt had picked up on the fact that Gary had come to be regarded as mostly a joke and that there were far bigger questions raised.”

Reitman asserts that the Hart affair has had a profound impact on how news is consumed, how elections are viewed — and how Donald Trump was elected two years ago.

“If you merge entertainment and politics, you’re going to get an entertainer,” he noted. “People who feel shame about what they’ve done are not going to participate. You’re going to get someone who’s shameless.”

Reitman said he, Bai and Carson were inspired by Michael Ritchie’s 1972 comedy-drama “The Candidate,” starring Robert Redford as an unknown Democrat running against a well-known Republican for the U.S. Senate, and by Robert Altman’s technique of merging multiple narratives.

“The philosophical question here is what is relevant versus what is entertainment and how do you portray that cinematically,” Reitman said. “What we wanted to show was that there were multiple narratives in the movie.”

Jackman portrays Hart as a politician with a gift for connecting personally. His campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) says that’s he’s never seen a more able politician. Vera Farmiga plays his spouse, Lee Hart, who has to endure the public humiliation of being married to someone who’s become a punchline for Johnny Carson. Mamoudou Athie portrays A.J. Parker, a composite Washington Post reporter, and Sara Paxton plays Rice, the actress and model whose life was also never the same.

Sony premiered “The Front Runner” at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals to mostly positive reviews. Sony is planning to expand the release on Nov. 16.

Reitman singled out Jackman and Farmiga, who also starred in his “Up in the Air,” as being crucial to the film’s artistic success.

“Vera is one of the great actresses of her generation and it’s a privilege to have worked with her twice,” he said. “Hugh is remarkable. When I first met him, he said, ‘I never want to feel like I could have done more.’ He was so hardworking.”

But as interested as he is in the election, he’s not voting — Reitman, the son of director-producer Ivan Reitman, is a native of Montreal and Canadian citizen. He’s aware of Americans who are threatening to move to Canada if the election doesn’t go their way.

“Perhaps I can start another caravan northward,” he joked.

Historically, movies set around political campaigns haven’t always caught on at the box office. The top performer is the Will Ferrell-Zack Galifianakis comedy “The Campaign,” which grossed $87 million in 2012 for Warner Bros., followed by Paramount’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” with $66 million in 2004, and Warner’s Kevin Kline comedy “Dave,” which grossed $63 million in 1993.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore, said the genre can be a tough sell.

“Traditionally among younger audiences, turnout has been low for politically themed movies,” he added. “However, with the current political climate firing up these potential moviegoers, we could see an increase in interest for the genre by this elusive demographic.”

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