Friday, July 10, 2009

Frost/Nixon (Universal, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Frost/Nixon is the 2008 re-creation of the 1977 interviews David Frost did with Richard Nixon that eventually turned out to be the only extensive interviews Nixon gave on camera to anyone between his resignation from the presidency in 1974 and his death almost 20 years later. The basic outlines of the story were familiar to me because years ago I’d read Frost’s memoir of the event, “I Gave Them a Sword,” the quotes in the title being used because they came from Nixon’s startlingly self-serving pseudo-confession in which he admitted some level of wrongdoing in the Watergate cover-up but managed to turn that around to blame his downfall on the people he’d always hated and who’d always hated him (though less so in reality than in his dark fantasies of them): the Eastern Establishment and the media.

Watching Frost/Nixon after reading the first chapter of Norman Mailer’s Cannibals and Christians, which is about the 1964 Republican convention, the nomination of Barry Goldwater and the birth of the radical Right (in yesterday’s journal entry I quoted Debussy’s description of Wagner as “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn” and said the Goldwater campaign was just the reverse: an ugly sunrise that was mistaken for a dusk), was especially fascinating because it reveals just how amazingly consistent the Right’s appeal has been and how they’ve been able to sustain this appalling level of ressentiment (memo to political scientists: you can always trick out an ordinary and even banal piece of analysis by putting it in French!) for 45 years — longer if you count the Right of the 1930’s (you know, the handful of people who were saying Franklin Roosevelt was a Bolshevik and an instrument of the international Jewish conspiracy who was dragging America down to hell) or the 1950’s (especially Joe McCarthy and the fanatical following he attracted — and it’s impossible to listen to the surviving records of McCarthy without hearing in embryo the cadences of Rush Limbaugh and most of Right-wing talk radio and Fox News).

Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan based on his stage play, essentially follows the story arc Frost presented in his memoir: a professional entertainer and talk-show host on the celebrity downgrade sees a chance for a comeback by opening his checkbook for an interview with the disgraced ex-President, begins the project with no political ax to grind either pro- or anti-Nixon, hires research assistants who see the interviews as a chance to give Nixon “the trial he never got” because he resigned rather than face impeachment and his hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him before he could be indicted, gets badly blooded by Nixon on the first sessions of the interview taping but rallies, comes back and slams Nixon to the wall by finally getting him to admit wrongdoing in connection with Watergate. (This heroic self-image Frost projected and Peter Morgan faithfully reproduced in his script is somewhat belied by the fact that the interviews as a whole were so pro-Nixon that when Frost released them on VHS in the early 1990’s, he marketed them to conservatives and bought time on Rush Limbaugh’s show to advertise them.)

Frost/Nixon is a good movie but not a great one. It’s nice to see a movie made in 2008 that not only draws its inspiration from real life and real history but doesn’t trick it out with explosions or action or romance (though there’s a subplot of Frost indulging his notorious playboy tendencies with a woman named Caroline Cushing, played by Rebecca Hall, whom he meets on an airplane and seduces by offering her a meeting with Nixon — I’m not making this up, you know!) and assumes that the movie audience is adult and can be entertained and even moved by a tale of intellectual combat. Morgan said the story reminded him of a boxing match — and indeed he staged it as such, with Nixon and Frost as the fighters and their aides — producer John Birt [Matthew Macfadyen] and journalists James Reston, Jr. [Sam Rockwell] and Bob Zelnick [Oliver Platt] on Frost’s side and unsmiling aide and ex-Marine Jack Brennan [Kevin Bacon] on Nixon’s — as their “seconds.” In the stage play Nixon, Frost and their aides were the only characters; in the film Morgan “opened up” his original script by adding historical footage (including shots of journalists like Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid playing themselves) and going into more detail on Nixon’s fall — though much of that material was ultimately excised from the final cut. (The “deleted scenes” section of the DVD contains material that would have deepened the audience’s understanding of the underlying history but would also have slowed the film down — as it is, it comes just under two hours, a nice length that doesn’t feel overstuffed like so many modern movies do — and it’s revealing that there are no “deleted scenes” included from the re-creations of the actual Nixon-Frost interviews.)

Morgan’s presence as screenwriter can’t help but evoke memories of The Queen, another movie that drew for its inspiration on recent political history and sought to take us “behind the scenes” for a look at power in its element — though as with The Queen, much of the “re-creation” of the events in Frost/Nixon comes from Peter Morgan’s head and he has no more idea how Nixon related to his aides, his family or anyone else in his private life than we do. Frost/Nixon doesn’t seem to be as good a movie as The Queen, not so much because the situation in The Queen was inherently more dramatic (though it was, and certainly it was more cinematic) but because Ron Howard simply isn’t as good a director as Stephen Frears. It’s not that Howard does anything wrong — he gets (mostly) good performances from his actors (his stars, Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost, had already played their parts on stage in London and New York and Howard insisted on using them in the film), he paces the film well and keeps us interested in the story — but somehow the righteous passion Frears brought to The Queen is beyond Howard and is sorely missed.

The other problem with Frost/Nixon is Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon. It’s true he’s up against what is probably the most challenging situation imaginable for a modern actor — playing a person who was filmed and recorded so often that his re-creation is inevitably going to be compared to the real thing as seen by millions of members of his audience — and Langella (like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon biopic) wisely avoids any attempt at a Rich Little- or David Frye-style “impression.” (It’s also grimly amusing for an old Nixon-hater like me that he be played by an actor who formerly played Dracula.) Langella’s Nixon is a plausible characterization in its own right, and at two points in the movie — while delivering that maudlin final speech to the White House staff the day his resignation took effect, and during his final breakdown and sort-of admission in the Watergate interview — Langella actually manages to make Nixon a tragic figure and even a sympathetic one. (At the same time when he says he gave his enemies a sword and they got pleasure sticking it in and twisting it around inside him, he adds, “And if I’d have been them I’d have done the same thing” — an unwittingly revealing comment on just how unscrupulous Nixon really was and the horrible example his no-holds-barred style of attack politics has set for just about everyone else since.)

Elsewhere, though, Langella overacts — and perhaps the worst part of his performance was unwittingly highlighted on one of the DVD’s special features in which they showed clips of the real Nixon/Frost interviews and counterpointed them with the re-creations of them in the movie. Michael Sheen, though quite a bit smaller than the real David Frost, managed to capture the character quite well — the superficiality and the attempt to rise above it — while Langella delivers the famous line, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal” (a line that got quoted to death during the Bush administration after that philosophy, bolstered by the legal memos of John Yoo and other apologists, became the official policy of the administration!), in so overwrought a manner you practically expect him to open his mouth and show off the Dracula fangs. In the actual interview, Nixon tossed off the line with a far more sinister lack of affect, as if the idea that the president of the United States could do anything he wanted in the name of “national security” and make it legal simply by doing it was so self-evident he came off like an eighth-grade civics teacher explaining the point to a particularly thick student.

Frost/Nixon is quite a good movie, and is far more worth watching than most of the crap the major studios are turning out today, but it also doesn’t rise to the potential of its story as much as it should have — and there’s a lot of potential there, not only in the clash between Frost and Nixon themselves but also in the fish-out-of-water subplot of the dedicated journalists suddenly thrust into Frost’s celebrity milieu (they’re taken to a party at a posh nightclub and are awestruck at the number of famous people there — “Is that Neil Diamond?” — and the fact that the waitresses are real-life Playboy Bunnies; the cast list even includes an actor playing Hugh Hefner). Still, it’s nice that this movie exists and for the most part it does justice to its subject.