by Jon Bastian
The real reason we didn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore
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In revisiting the politics of 35 years ago, Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code) and adapted by Peter Morgan (The Queen from his play), gives us an object lesson in what the mainstream news media needs to re-learn in order to survive in modern times. It is journalism’s job to question authority and investigate their wrongdoings, confront them with the facts and demand explanations. The story in Frost/Nixon is small and self-contained, but the message is not. True Freedom, Liberty and Justice are only possible in a society where we are allowed to speak truth to power.
Short history lesson. Once upon a time, there was a president who, while waging an unpopular war in a far-off country, also did… dubious things in order to ensure his re-election. Burglars broke into the opposition party headquarters, enemy lists were compiled, Federal resources were used to punish those so-perceived, and Cabinet members and others were bribed, blackmailed or otherwise bought off in order to hide malfeasance. The whole time, there was an attitude that it wasn’t illegal if the President did it, and anything that could be covered up wasn’t a problem.
No, I’m not talking about the last eight years, because those crimes were far, far worse. I’m talking about the last days of Richard Nixon, the only American President to date to be forced to resign from office in the face of certain impeachment; the only American President – but probably not the last – to live out his days as a lonely pariah, a despised, discredited and broken figure. As the film itself points out, Nixon is the Grandfather of political scandal. Thanks to his last days in office, “gate” has become the prefix-du-jour for any Washington Scandal. Lewinskygate, Travelgate, Plamegate, et. al. The usage has even spread to Britain (Camillagate) and into the world of sports and entertainment.
But, what Frost/Nixon subtly reminds us is this: between Nixon’s resignation and his interviews with David Frost, he and his people still had hopes for a political comeback once the dust had settled, a return to Washington DC and yet another time in the limelight. In fact, as we learn early on in the film, this is one of the reasons Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, Superman Returns) is convinced by his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones, who played another political freak, Karl Rove, in Oliver Stone’s W.) to agree to what will certainly be a series of puff-balls from British TV presenter and talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in writer Morgan’s The Queen). On Frost’s side, if he can successfully break Nixon during the interviews, he will have made his career, which is in a somewhat similar state to Nixon’s. Neither man is taken seriously by the public anymore. At this point in time, Nixon was almost as big a joke as George Bush is now – and a pair of shoes figures prominently in this story, as well. David Frost was nothing but a glib talking head, who delivered bad jokes in fluffy talk shows or hosted Geraldo-esque stunts, and was quickly slipping toward yesterday’s news. (He was a regular source of parody already for Monty Python’s Flying Circus – although, to be fair, it was largely a bit of getting back at their old boss.) To put it in modern terms, Frost’s ballsy effort to get The Exclusive Interview with Nixon would be the equivalent of a Kathy Lee Gifford trying to snag The Exclusive Interview with W in about four months. No one wants to hear the subject speak, and no one thinks the reporter has any credibility. This makes for a very high stakes game. Two will enter the arena, but only one can walk out victorious.
Indeed, once we get through the preliminary negotiations, the film settles into a psychological boxing match between over-confident Frost and more overly-confident Nixon, each boxer accompanied by an entourage of coaches. This is the unknown and unranked newcomer (Frost) challenging the former World Champion (Nixon) to twelve rounds, winner take all. And, for much of that time, the Champ kicks the shit out of the Newbie. (Frost once famously accused Rhodesia’s Premier of denying promotion to black members of the navy, only to be reminded that Rhodesia was a landlocked nation without a Navy. Oops… talk about a Palinism.)
I won’t say much more about the plot. If you ever saw the interviews, then you know what happens. If you haven’t, but have been paying attention at least since the early 90s, you can probably guess. The journey in this story isn’t discovering what happened. Rather, it’s being reminded of what happened through the lens of what has happened recently.
Frost/Nixon is almost an object lesson in what we’ve lost since the 70s as a culture, and a pointed reminder that it’s not too late to get it back. As I pointed out in my review of Network elsewhere on this site, what was once a blistering satire about TV News at the time has become, all too sadly, a documentary. Reporters asking hard questions of elected officials, the politics of either be damned, used to be the norm. Since the 90s, it’s become all about the reporters not daring to piss off the elected – probably a process started by Nixon and perfected by Reagan. And that is just absolutely backwards. The ones the reporters should be worried about pissing off are We the People, who are supposed to be the ones in charge.
Ultimately, Frost/Nixon is the story of one entertainer learning to become a journalist, and this is why the movie and play were not called Nixon/Frost. Indeed, on that level, the piece works, and all of the scenes between Sheen and Langella are dynamite – not surprising, since they are the actors who created the roles on Broadway, and were cast at director Ron Howard’s insistence. The chemistry between the two is palpable here, and it’s largely what carries the movie.
What doesn’t carry the movie is the decision to make it a pseudo-documentary, with talking heads of various actors as their characters narrating events for us. Now, unlike my review of Doubt, which I saw both on stage and screen, I never saw Frost/Nixon on stage, so I can’t comment on the differences. But I have a feeling that this might be a story that worked better as a play than a movie. The film version seems telescoped, possibly because this adaptation takes a fauxumentory style, allowing third parties to give us talking head narration. These moments feel like a shortcut and a cheat, and I don’t know whether to blame the director or the playwright’s adaptation. We also seem to jump from Round (or Day) 3 of the interviews to the final match rather abruptly, in almost a throwaway line. We are left with a beautiful coda, though, a moment that almost gives Nixon his due – not exonerating his many crimes, but indicating that, perhaps, he has realized too late that he picked exactly the wrong profession.
Howard’s direction is pedestrian and invisible, which is probably right for this kind of movie, although we do get several pretty visuals, nod to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who gives us a Western White House (La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente) that seems to have jumped out of a Greetings from California postcard, as well as talking head scenes that look like they could have been shot in 1977, the year the Frost/Nixon interviews aired. For his part, Morgan proves himself once again adept at recreating recent political events with the Big Names as characters and portraying them as complex, real people, with one face for public life and one face for private.
Sheen and Langella both shine in their roles, even if neither ever actually physically disappears into them. Sheen looks and sounds a touch too much like Eric Idle (Python’s Frost impersonator) to really appear like a dyspeptic British version of William F. Buckley’s face and drone, but he does give us the emotional truth of this character who is faced with an insurmountable challenge and, while he’s scared to death about it, refuses to show his human side to anyone else, determined to force himself to success, one way or another. Langella doesn’t look like Nixon except in a few shots – in fact, facially, he bears more resemblance to Ronald Reagan, that other Conservative Demon now put in the grave. But he has the voice down pat, putting paid to Anthony Hopkins’s attempt in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and giving us the real Nixon, rather than the Rich Little version that has become the Nixon meme. And, at the same time, he embodies the Twin Tragedies of Nixon. Tragedy 1: Nixon really started out as a good, moral Quaker boy determined to do right, but was given too much power to be safe making the decisions about what was right. Tragedy 2: Nixon did irreparable damage to the American public’s view of the Presidency. Even with a clown like LBJ in office, most Americans had the attitude of “Whatever the President asks of you, do it for the good of the country.” By the time Nixon left office, that attitude had changed to “Whatever the President asks of you, cover your ass and run away unless you want to get screwed.” You’ve probably guessed that I’m no fan of the NeoCon Holy Trinity of W-Reagan-Nixon. The nice surprise for me was that Frost/Nixon and Langella’s performance made me at least understand the man’s motives and, if not feel sorry for what he suffered, at least realize that yes, he did suffer enormously for his crimes, even if he was never even tried or convicted.
Oliver Platt (Kinsey) and Sam Rockwell (Choke) provide a sort of New Age Laurel and Hardy – presupposing a smart Hardy and an angry Laurel – as two of Frost’s closest aids in the project, Platt a former ABC Executive with lots of TV savvy and Rockwell as a writer who has already published four books on Nixon and who, in modern times, would be the 9/11 Truth blogger who is eventually proven to have been absolutely right, but we’re seeing him circa 2005.
Other standouts are the aforementioned Toby Jones, who is just creepy as Swifty Lazar – remember those “dancing old guy” ads for Six Flags? Imagine that, but talking – which is probably an accurate depiction of a top Hollywood agent. Kevin Bacon (Where the Truth Lies) moves a whole bunch of people up one Bacon Number, and disappears into his role as Nixon’s still loyal aid and biggest protector and, again, makes a douchebag sympathetic. Rebecca Hall (The Prestige) provides the eye candy and the emotional anchor as Frost’s latest quick pick-up who becomes something more in his life during the interview process.
Clint Howard is there, somewhere, as usual. Couldn’t find him.
Final verdict: Frost/Nixon is sort of the American counterpart to The Queen, with one half of the same leading cast. There are no CGI effects or big things exploding, unless you consider two titans locked in an epic intellectual struggle to be explosive. If you do, it is still quite entertaining, and both a history lesson thirty years out of its own time and a reminder of what needs to be done in the very near future. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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