Friday, November 19, 2010

FROST/NIXON (2008): Kicking Around Nixon

The general populace fed by the media generally hates politicians for the wrong reasons.  As far as Presidential scandals go, the Watergate break-in probably should not be deserving of such notoriety.  Certainly it’s more significant than such foibles as Grover Cleveland fathering an illegitimate child prior to his taking office or Bill Clinton’s initiating one of his interns concerning an interesting use of a cigar.   But compared to imperialist doctrines to annex lands in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines in the 1890s, the passing of the Sedition Act of 1918 that effectively squelched any criticism of United States policies during a time of war, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the creation and expansion of the HUAC immediately following World War II (and which helped introduce the young Nixon to the world), and the fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 as a motivating factor to expand U.S. military activities in Southeast Asia, I’d almost prefer a President ordering a bungled burglary.  I’m not in any way suggesting that history should treat Nixon kindly.  Watergate gave the media a chance to bring down Nixon by portraying the President as a bumbling and raving buffoon.  What the media should have examined more closely was Nixon’s role in prolonging the Viet Nam conflict (as the war was still going on when Nixon resigned), and the President’s ordering of the bombing of Cambodia in 1969 that may later have contributed to Cambodia’s upheaval.  Thirty-four years after Nixon left office, Director Ron Howard has learned almost nothing in hindsight.  The film Frost/Nixon shows us only a Nixon we have long since known without in anyway revealing the late President’s ruthless side - outside of what was revealed on the White House tapes.
By 1977, Frost/Nixon portrays Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) as a bored and restless man desperate for any opportunity to redeem himself.  David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a television host looking for an opportunity to rejuvenate his supposedly sagging career.  (It’s suggested that Frost is a playboy involved mostly in lightweight entertainment projects in Britain and Australia.)  Through the help of Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell), Frost is able to line up a thirty-hour taping session with the former President.  Zelnick and especially Reston do have concerns that Frost is not up for this kind of task, but they view this as possibly the only opportunity that anyone will have to put Nixon “on trial” for his misdeeds as President.  This is especially true in light of the pardon of Nixon by President Gerald Ford.  Nixon, on the other hand, is assisted chiefly by Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon’s former Chief-of-Staff, and various Press Secretaries including Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) who interestingly is given almost no speaking part in the film.
If we are to believe the movie, Nixon basically makes hash out of Frost throughout the first series of interviews until the final one.  Nixon uses a number of psychological ploys to nettle Frost including crude remarks and references to the effeminate shoes that Frost is wearing when the two are off the air.  However, Frost is able to gain the psychological advantage in the end.  Just prior to that last interview, Nixon makes a drunken phone call to Frost and makes known all of the former Presidents inner insecurities (this scene being a piece of fiction made up by a screenwriter).  Frost, in typical Hollywood underdog status, now is motivated to achieve victory.  Frost controls the last interview and provokes Nixon to admit that he had let the country down.  This, we are let to know, occurred with a viewer audience of some 400 million people.  We then get some nonsense in the form of endnotes at the conclusion of the movie telling us that Nixon never again played a prominent public role while Frost went on to become a famous celebrity.
This will probably go contrary to what members of the Academy will tell you, but the acting in Frost/Nixon is not impressive.  Langella delivers some funny lines, but his portrayal of Nixon from almost beginning to end of this film is that of a parody.  (Langella will probably receive some consideration for an Oscar because at least there is no question as to whom he is trying to play.)  Kevin Bacon is allowed no range whatsoever other than to play the most uptight and controlling of individuals.  Platt and Rockwell spend most of the movie looking distressed.  And Sheen, when not meekly smiling into the camera, plays the role of someone tortured by self-pity.  There really are no other memorable characters in the movie.
As a recitation of history, Howard might also want to be careful about using particular historical events familiar to many viewers.  The Frost/Nixon interviews in no way relegated Nixon to pariah status because of Nixon’s admission that he made some mistakes.  Besides the $600,000 or more that he made for conducting the interviews, interest in Nixon was revived, he received a great deal more in royalties for the books he had written, and the end result was that Nixon was able to rehabilitate his reputation.  Likewise, Frost made a fortune off of interviewing Nixon, so the interviews were actually to the benefit of both men.  But though Frost’s reputation was greatly enhanced from the Nixon’ interviews, that’s not to say that he was doing all that badly before the interviews took place.   Frost had already interviewed a number of British Prime Ministers and other significant political figures before he even spoke to Richard Nixon.  He wasn’t the ill-prepared bungler that everyone feared would be no match for Nixon.  And Frost also had previous success in interviewing artists, intellectuals and celebrities like John Lennon, Tennessee Williams, Joan Crawford and Barbara Streisand.   (By the way, an early reference in the movie about Frost’s lack of political involvement, as evidenced by the fact that he never voted for an American President, is slightly misleading.  David Frost was a British citizen.)
The movie seemed long for being 122 minutes in length, but that may be due to the number of bad previews I had to endure before the movie actually began.  (We may also want to tell Howard that the mock-documentary method for telling a story is not a clever innovation.)  The script wasn’t completely bad.  If the dialogue was accurately transcribed, Nixon may have had a better sense of humor than anyone formerly suspected.  Unfortunately, there was nothing ground breaking in this movie that would have provided a viewer any more knowledge of what occurred during the Nixon administration than one could have learned from the Congressional hearings in 1974.  And if Howard wanted to use Nixon as a critique of our about to be former President, George W. Bush, he may have wanted to make more than passing references to the Viet Nam War because that war would have the most significant parallel to the current situation in Iraq.
In forty years, we still have had no political movie that can compare with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  In part, this is because movie producers and directors cannot put aside their party affiliation and speak with an independent voice.  In Frost/Nixon, Howard cannot put aside his political leanings to resist resorting to political parodies.  Howard has Nixon rave, utter racial epithets and stoop to personal attacks to manipulate the well-meaning Frost.  No where in the movie do we see anything more than unscrupulous behavior on the part of the ex-President so we are left to wonder what Nixon’s great appeal was to the American public in a political career that spanned nearly three decades.  The Nixon in the movie shows animal cunning but not a great deal of intelligence.   To portray Nixon as more than a parody would require for Howard to have to understand the complicated happenings in the United States and the world in the 1960s and ‘70s.  It would also mean for Howard to understand that a large number of people supported Nixon precisely because of his policies and not because they failed to see Nixon’s character flaws.  Nixon’s admission that he made some mistakes does not explain why the country allowed for the Viet Nam War to continue like it did.
What puzzles me about a movie like Frost/Nixon is why a director like Ron Howard would have wanted to take it on.  After Cinderella Man in 2005 and The Da Vinci Code in 2006, I don’t blame him for wanting to direct something that doesn’t insult the intelligence.  Yet the rah-rah, good guy beats the bad guy sentiment of Frost/Nixon is handled with no more subtlety than was previously shown in the portrayal of the saintly Jim Braddock fighting against the allegedly abhorrent Max Baer in Cinderella Man.  Ron Howard may have wanted to shed that naïve image of Opie in Mayberry or Richie Cunningham in Happy Days, but he’s going to have to make a much better movie than Frost/Nixon before that is ever going to occur.
January 20, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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