Friday, February 6, 2009

Frost & Nixon & Ted & Alice

Over the years, I've had to re-look at most of what I know about right-wing politicians because the stories I got were growing up (from school and the media) were so one-sided, that I just learned to qualify any of that atmospheric "everyone knows" stuff with the question, "Well, how does everyone know this?"

Even so, Tricky Dick was still in my book as a slippery, sleazy guy. Not so much for Watergate, which strikes me as a relatively trivial offense on the scale of Presidential crimes. (Criminally stupid, I'll grant.) But for his rather ruthless use of various agencies to harass and punish his enemies.

Plus, he was a conservative when conservative meant "for massively expanding governmental powers, but okay with Jesus and anti-hippie." The EPA, price-controls, kind of like W, only without W's remarkable honesty.

I'm sure it's not what Ron "Gee, I Hope I Get To Vote For Someone As Great As Obama Someday" Howard had in mind, but Frost/Nixon made me think that I've maybe been too harsh on the guy. I sort of feel like this movie was targeted at the Boomers who hated Nixon with every fiber of their being (like Matt Groening, who brought back Nixon's head 25 years later in Futurama), and so that we're assumed to identify with the "journalists" who join Frost in an effort to get the disgraced President.

But since I'm not one of those guys, I sat there going: "Ah. So the whole point of the interviews--for everyone but Frost--was to wring a confession of guilt out of the Nixon. Anything less meant failure and disgrace for eveyrone involved in the project."

Let me back up a bit and say, this is a movie chock full of great acting. I've heard some criticisms of Frank Langella's Nixon, but I think those views come from people who remember the guy. Langella plays Nixon like King Lear: He's a towering giant of man, not just in stature but in ability. He's sly, powerful, elusive, frighteningly intelligent and he intimidates his enemies easily. He controls the space, he rumbles with Langella's marvellous bass, and he's so confident, it's only his enemies absolute conviction that he's evil that keeps them strong.

Problem is, he doesn't come across as evil at all. In fact, there are so many points in the movie where he's validated--as a powerhouse diplomat, as a strong leader, even his defense of Vietnam is better than his enemies' attack--that when the moment finally comes where he admits to abuse of power, it seems sort of trivial. Downright petty even. And his own confession of guilt and clear feelings of disappointment and shame, well, 30 years out, I began to feel like we weren't really worthy of him--and that I wouldn't mind having him in charge today.

TIP: If you want to demonize someone, you probably shouldn't put a great stage actor up there to play him. And it's possible, I suppose, they weren't trying to.

In any event, the whole movie ends up having an almost Amadeus-like surreality to it. Like we're watching a clash of Titans. Or a titan being brought down by ankle-biters.

Michael Sheen (who gave a brilliant performance as Tony Blair in The Queen) plays David Frost with Matthew MacFayden (Mr. Darcy of Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice) as his friend (agent? producer?) . They pick up the always dependable Olver Platt and Sam Rockwell (as Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. respectively) for their American research team. And Frost picks up chippie Caroline Cushing (played by Rebecca Hall of The Prestige) and parties with her in '70s Los Angeles while the project is being put together.

Sheen's Frost is a media-savvy charmer, a playboy, and a bit of a dilettante until the very end. He's portrayed as being outclassed for most of the interview. (This is largely fictitious; Obviously Frost didn't rise to prominence being a lightweight.)

The Nixon side features Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in one of the two Capote bios that came out a few years ago) as the only truly reprehensible character in the movie: talent agent Swifty Lazar. TV news personality Diane Sawyer apparently helped Nixon write his memoirs, so there's an actress playing her. But there's really not much room on the Nixon side for anyone else, with one exception.

Kevin Bacon plays the most heroic figure, Jack Brennan. To get a sense of this guy, you can read this article in People from 1976. Bacon will probably be ignored and underestimated as usual, but the movie's great emotional moments are his and Langella's.

Again, I have to wonder if this was the intention: Without any preconceived notions, Nixon comes out nearly heroic. A tragic hero, for sure, but heroic nonetheless. The script refers numerous times to his achievements (his foreign policy coups with Kruschev and Mao), and even his fiercest opponents admit that he was quite accomplished. They just believe him to be criminal.

I saw a man with great ambition and ability who was beset by partisan hacks out to destroy him. They blame him for Vietnam, for the Khmer Rouge, for Watergate--though the point is never the crime, as the gotcha--and all Nixon wants is respect. There's a fictitious scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost and goes on a rambling analysis of his own and Frost's sense of inferiority which I felt overplayed the dramatic hand, but even that didn't undermine my sense that this was a partisan witch hunt.

This is the guy who famously won his first election by (falsely) accusing his opponent of being a communist. (Though, you know, come to think of it, maybe that's an "everyone knows" thing, too. The guy was a massive liberal/New Deal type.) The real Frost interviewed the real Nixon on that topic but that wasn't part of the movie.

Meh. Treat it like you would Amadeus or Richard the III--an interesting fiction with historical figures as characters--and you can have a good time.

The tough question is whether Langella or Jenkins (The Visitor) should win the Oscar. The two performances are nearly polar opposites.


  1. Treat it like you would Amadeus or Richard the III--an interesting fiction with historical figures as characters--and you can have a good time.

    Hey, there's a science fiction movie to be made here: Imagine an alternative universe, where knee jerk liberal assumptions do not drive the narratives behind almost every single piece of popular entertainment...

  2. I began to feel like we weren't really worthy of him--and that I wouldn't mind having him in charge today.

    Hee hee. I have an original one of these, and I wore it around last November. I hope Nixon gets rehabilitated--I can still do a pretty good Rich Little-inspired impression.

  3. I have an original one of these, and I wore it around last November.

    You're brave!! See any exploding heads?

  4. See any exploding heads?

    Ha ha. It's actually pretty small--about the size of a quarter. I had it pinned off to the side on a "McPalin" baseball cap. Most people didn't even notice it.

  5. knox,

    That sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone with George Clooney as himself. (They did that with the movie, actually, in the Vic Morrow episode, but it was just about racism--way overdone at the time.)

    Come to think of it, a liberal bouncing around in a world where his preconceptions have led to disaster is the plot of An American Carol.

  6. The worm always turns. You have to go against what you dad did. Of course as you get older you dad seems to get a lot smarter. The problem is that the baby boomers will never grow up. They are pepertually petulant poopers in the pants. Bill Clinton is the archtype. Appetite on two legs feeling sorry for himself because he can't have everything because damnit he's entitled.

  7. Nixon was a tough guy who wanted to be loved. Read an biography about him. Someone once said that you know who Nixon was when he served in WWII. Mr. Roberts. While JFK was the golden boy who had the skids greased for him from the getgo.

  8. Yeah, that's how he's portrayed, Troop.

    There's a great scene where James Reston, Jr., who's virtually consumed with hate for Nixon, finally meets him.

    He has all these fantasies about how he's going to treat him, but when he's there in the flesh, he can't do any of it.

  9. They are pepertually petulant poopers in the pants.

    superb sentence


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