In movie about Mi­ami Her­ald’s role in Gary Hart’s down­fall, truth gets left on the cut­ting room floor

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY TOM FIEDLER tfiedler@bu.org

As the film on the gi­ant screen above me rolls on­ward, and a char­ac­ter bear­ing my name sud­denly ap­pears, the first thing I no­tice is the beard. It’s black and bushy and wor­thy of a moun­tain man.

On the screen “I” am a bit of a di­sheveled slob with a hefty belly and a look on my face of con­stant be­fud­dle­ment.

The real me can tes­tify that I’ve never worn a beard, not even had stub­ble.

And I doubt that the “Tom Fiedler” I see on the screen is one my fam­ily and friends would rec­og­nize. But ow­ing to a Hol­ly­wood makeover, this ver­sion for­ever may be me to mil­lions of movie-watch­ers and obit­u­ary writ­ers. This “me” is a cen­tral player in an his­toric event 31 years ago, an event that had pro­found reper­cus­sions in the decades to fol­low and, ac­cord­ing to this film, led us to tabloid jour­nal­ism, to mul­ti­ple wars and to Don- ald J. Trump.

“Non­sense,” the real me says aloud in the theater.

Oth­er­wise I en­joyed the film — which may re­quire an ex­pla­na­tion.

The film, set in 1987, is ti­tled “The Front Run­ner” in a nod to the pre­vail­ing view that U.S. Sen. Gary Hart was then the odds-on fa­vorite to win the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

It por­trays the fi­nal days of Hart’s high-fly­ing cam­paign as it spec­tac­u­larly spi­raled down­ward and crashed, all be­cause a Mi­ami Her­ald story pro­duced by me and my col­leagues, Jim McGee and James Sav­age, re­vealed his ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair with a young Mi­ami model named Donna Rice.

The mar­quee poster sums it this way: “Gary Hart was go­ing to be pres­i­dent. In­stead he changed Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for­ever.”

First, some thoughts about the film.

As tragic as the real out­come may have been for him, the for­mer Colorado se­na­tor has the good for­tune of be­ing por­trayed by Hugh Jack­man, an A-list ac­tor known for his work as the Wolver­ine in the “XMen” films and as Jean Val­jean in “Les Mis­er­ables.” He cap­tures well Hart’s man­ner­isms, his cow­boy–hand­some fea- tures, his self-de­struc­tive bril­liance.

On the other hand, I am por­trayed by an ac­tor named Steve Zis­sis, whose only sim­i­lar­ity to me may be un­ruly hair and horn­rimmed glasses. My col­leagues fared worse.

This raised for me a cou­ple of ques­tions:

First, wasn’t Brad Pitt avail­able? Sec­ond, and se­ri­ously, how can it be that I and other real peo­ple are por­trayed in a Hol­ly­wood film with­out our assent? In my case, why would Zis­sis as­sume the role with­out both­er­ing to learn some ba­sics about me, not to men­tion key facts about the story?

I tried to ask him that ques­tion through so­cial me­dia, but never got a re­ply.

But I di­gress.

“The Front Run­ner” is di­rected by Ja­son Reit­man, an Os­car-nom­i­nated film maker with such cred­its as “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” It is based on the book by jour­nal­ist Matt Bai called “All the Truth is Out: The week pol­i­tics went tabloid.” Bai worked with for­mer White House speech­writer Jay Car­son and Reit­man on the script.

The book wasn’t kind to me or the Her­ald. In one pas­sage Bai refers to me as a de­scen­dant of Pu­ri­tans, which, though true, seemed to im­ply that this ren­dered me sym­pa­thetic to witch hunt­ing. And the fact that no­body in­volved in mak­ing the film had con­tacted Sav­age, McGee or me left me lit­tle hope the film would be dif­fer­ent.

So it was to my sur­prise that Reit­man re­cently ar­ranged for me to see a pre-re­lease screen­ing and asked to meet me af­ter­ward. On the ap­pointed day, there I was in a 400seat theater — alone — watch­ing a char­ac­ter bear­ing my name as he en­gaged in ac­tiv­i­ties that only oc­ca­sion­ally aligned with the his­tory I had lived.

It was, quite lit­er­ally, an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence.

Not only did I bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to my screen per­sona, Jim McGee and Jim Sav­age be­came a com­pos­ite con­ve­niently named — Jim. Our pho­tog­ra­pher, a true pro named Brian

Smith, on screen be­came a bum­bling pa­parazzo.

More bizarre was a char­ac­ter named “E.J.” in the film, who was a com­pos­ite of New York Times re­porter E.J. Dionne and Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter Paul Tay­lor.

“E.J.” is a young, ide­al­is­tic, emo­tion­ally frag­ile Post re­porter ap­par­ently cre­ated to be ev­ery­thing ad­mirable that my char- ac­ter was not. His role was to ad­mire Hart, de­spise me and protest be­ing as­signed to fol­low the Mi­ami Her­ald’s story.

The film’s ac­count also stum­bles on sev­eral facts.

I cer­tainly didn’t rudely hang up on the fe­male source who tipped me off to Hart’s dal­liance. Had I hung up I wouldn’t have learned from her that Rice planned to fly se­cretly to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., that week­end to spend it with Hart.

The film also per­pet­u­ates the false­hood that our de­ci­sion to fol­low up on the tip was trig­gered by Hart’s oft-quoted re­sponse to wom­an­iz­ing al­le­ga­tions.

When Times re­porter Dionne asked the wom­an­iz­ing ques­tion for a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, Hart’s pithy re­ply was to in­vite him to, “Fol­low me, you’ll be bored.” That quote, writ­ten by Dionne in The New

York Times, played no role in our de­ci­sion to go to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to ver­ify the tip. In­deed, Hart had told me es­sen­tially the same thing, though in less mem­o­rable words, weeks be­fore.

Per­haps I am quib­bling. I re­al­ize Hol­ly­wood doesn’t treat his­tor­i­cal events as a doc­u­men­tary film must. Reit­man clearly didn’t set out to make a vari­a­tion of “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men” or “The Post.” I also un­der­stand that events evolv­ing over days or weeks must be com­pressed to fit a fea­ture film’s two-hour limit. I can even un­der­stand the need for com­pos­ite char­ac­ters.

To Reit­man’s credit, the film’s por­trayal of Donna Rice, the tar­get of Hart’s at­ten­tion who was too of­ten de­picted in news ac­counts as a femme fa­tale, struck me as ac­cu­rate and sym­pa­thetic, more the vic­tim of the me­dia firestorm and Hart’s preda­tory be­hav­ior than a vixen. And Lee Hart, the can­di­date’s oft-suf­fer­ing wife, comes through as an ex­em­plar of dig­nity and sto­icism in spite of the pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion she en­dured.

This, too, seems ac­cu­rate to the facts as I knew them.

So when Reit­man asked for my re­ac­tion just min­utes af­ter I walked out of the theater, I asked him why the char­ac­ter bear­ing my name made lit­tle ef­fort to sim­u­late his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity.

With the strained pa­tience that a teacher shows to an ob­tuse stu­dent, Reit­man replied that I clearly mis­un­der­stand the ac­tor’s job. He ex­plained that Zis­sis’ as­sign­ment wasn’t to de­pict me as who I was at that time. Nor was it to repli­cate my ac­tions in re­port­ing the story.

Rather, Reit­man told me, the sole ob­jec­tive of all the ac­tors was to weave their in­di­vid­ual roles into a broad nar­ra­tive that left the au­di­ence to pon­der sev­eral ques­tions.

Which are these: Did the Mi­ami Her­ald — in that story on that day — change for­ever, and for the worse, the way jour­nal­ists cover po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates? Did the Mi­ami Her­ald in­tro­duce tabloid jour­nal­ism into pres­i­den­tial cam­paign cov­er­age by oblit­er­at­ing the un­writ­ten rule that cer­tain can­di­date be­hav­iors, in­clud­ing phi­lan­der­ing, could re­main se­cret?

For those ques­tions to land with the au­di­ence, my char­ac­ter needed to fit the stereo­type of a low-life tabloid re­porter, the un­kempt slob go­ing af­ter the dash­ing, bril­liant, though flawed, hero.

My fate was to be­come the vil­lain.

Ul­ti­mately, “The Front Run­ner” at­tempts to leave the au­di­ence to pon­der this truly epochal ques­tion: Are all the woes the na­tion has faced in the past three decades — the 9/11 at­tacks; global ter­ror­ism; un­end­ing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Don­ald J. Trump — be­cause my col­leagues and I at the Her­ald de­liv­ered a cam­paignkilling blow to Gary Hart?

Did we, as the film asks, change ev­ery­thing?

That the­sis has a gap­ing hole.

Seven months af­ter Hart with­drew from the cam­paign amid con­tro­versy, he re­vived his ef­fort and got back in the Demo­cratic race. It was his op­por­tu­nity to show that his bril­liance, his com­mand of the is­sues, his charm, could over­come the rude in­ter­rup­tion of a sex scan­dal.

Within a few weeks he fin­ished last in the first two con­tests of pri­mary sea­son, the Iowa cau­cuses and the New Hamp­shire pri­mary. He qui­etly quit the ef­fort and slipped away.

That in­con­ve­nient truth isn’t in­cluded in the film.

Tom Fiedler, dean of the Col­lege of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Bos­ton Univer­sity, is a for­mer Mi­ami Her­ald po­lit­i­cal writer, ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor and ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor. He’s also com­peted in two dozen marathons and nu­mer­ous Iron­man com­pe­ti­tions.

COUR­TESY OF SONY PIC­TURES

Hugh Jack­man por­trays pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Gary Hart in “The Front Run­ner.”

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