A national media frenzy ensued, until finally, at a news conference days later in Hanover, N.H., Paul Taylor of the Post asked Hart the question that, as depicted in the movie, still has the power to elicit a sharp intake of breath from the early screening audience with which I watched it: “Have you ever committed adultery?” (Hart’s stunned initial answer, “I don’t think that’s a fair question,” soon devolved into a flustered discussion of theology, from which he never recovered.) The next day, as the Post confronted the campaign with reports of another alleged affair, Hart—then leading in all the polls and seen as the Democrats’ strongest general election opponent to George H. W. Bush—effectively ended his candidacy. (He would later revive it in a quixotic, shoestring quest that won him not a single delegate.)
The film is told from three perspectives—that of Hart and his circle, that of journalists at the Herald, and that of journalists at the Post—and it is sympathetic, to the candidate and to the reporters and editors who grapple earnestly with how to cover a story in which the moral and journalistic ground seems to be shifting uncertainly underneath them. The real-life reporters Dionne and Taylor are rolled into a single composite character, a young reporter for the Post named A. J. Parker (played by Mamoudou Athie). At one point he argues to his legendary editor, Ben Bradlee (portrayed by Alfred Molina), “Just because some other paper used gossip as front-page news, I mean, that doesn’t mean we have to.” Bradlee’s reply is terse: “It does. It does now.” But Ari Graynor, playing a character based on the late Ann Devroy, then the Post’s political editor, justifies the relevance of the story on a higher plane. “He is a man with power, and that takes certain responsibility,” she says in a moment that presages the era of #MeToo.
Reitman, the director of Up in the Air, Juno, and Thank You for Smoking, told me that he is naturally drawn to ambiguity and that his films tend to “lean into the gray.” In the end, he says, The Front Runner is a thriller. “I mean, it’s very easy to talk about the politics, because they are so relevant. It’s funny—as a filmmaker, I’ve never talked about politics more and filmmaking less. But it’s a thriller. It’s a thriller that takes place in less than a week, in which the guy goes from being the presumed next president to leaving politics pretty much forever.”
Still, Reitman, who was 10 at the time of the events depicted in his film—and more interested in the adventures of Marty McFly than those of Gary Hart—is quick to acknowledge that he fell in love with the story after hearing a Radiolab podcast about Bai’s book. He was drawn in by “this same urge that everyone I know has to understand this strange moment we’re living in. I don’t think it matters what side of the aisle you’re on. You can’t help but look at the system and go, ‘All right, this is broken, and how did we get here?’”