Op-Ed

Truth is left on cutting room floor in movie focusing on Herald’s role in Hart’s downfall

Actor Steve Zissis, with beard and paunch, plays a former Miami Herald political reporter, the clean-shaven and svelte Tom Fiedler.
Actor Steve Zissis, with beard and paunch, plays a former Miami Herald political reporter, the clean-shaven and svelte Tom Fiedler.

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 Donald 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 “X-Men” films and as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”

He captures well Hart’s mannerisms, his cowboy–handsome features, 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 horn-rimmed 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.

fiedler.jpg
Fiedler

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 400-seat 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 character 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 campaign-killing 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.

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