Thursday, February 26, 2009

Frost/Nixon - Hollywood Finally Gets It Right

The tag line of Ron Howard's ambitious new film, Frost/Nixon, tells us quite a lot about what was otherwise a refreshing and sympathetic look at President Nixon:

"400 Million people were waiting for the truth - Their legendary confrontation would revolutionize the art of the confessional interview, change the face of politics and capture an admission from the former president that startled people all over the world . . . possible even including Nixon himself".

Well, not exactly. After the first of four segments, viewers were bored to tears, and tuned out for the rest of the interviews. The climactic scene of the movie - when the intrepid Frost (Michael Sheen) pins Nixon (Frank Langella) in a corner, causing the disgraced former President to fall into an endless moment of reflective silence followed by a semi-confession of sorts - is utter hog wash. Nixon revealed nothing new in the interviews, and virtually all major news networks were unanimous in their opinion that Nixon had bested the ill prepared, and at times star-struck, Frost. If you're doubting this, here's some excerpts from the major newspapers the day after the supposedly historic "gotcha!" moment:

What did Watergate super-sleuth Bob Woodward think?

“a much-touted television interview which shed little new light on the scandal.”

Hmm. What about Haynes Johnson, a colleague of Woodward's at the Washington Post?

“Last night’s program was billed as a dramatic and historic encounter between Nixon and his opponent, the relentless David Frost. It was nothing of the sort. . . . By the very end of the program, Frost looks as though he’s swept up by the Nixon responses. . . . The tables have been turned. Frost had met his match.”

What about you the supposedly exotic liberal foreign intellectual papers? Surely the Times of London must have seen the interview through different eyes? Nope.

“It was clear that David Frost let Mr Nixon escape in the interrogation . . . [Frost] finds less adulatory coverage this morning than his advance men expected. . . . [W]henever the matter strayed from his clip-board of notes he was not informed enough to counter some of Mr Nixon’s most brazen revisions. The main mysteries of Watergate are still intact.”

Public sympathy for Nixon actually increased after the interviews. Americans were somewhat more forgiving when they discovered that the President's chief motivation for lying about when he actually found out about the break-in was more out of loyalty for his friends than it was to protect his office at any cost. Some may justifiably find this behaviour inexcusable regardless of the motivation, but why doesn't anyone direct the same outrage at President Kennedy, who we now know ordered his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to bug the offices of Martin Luther King Jr?

So why did Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind/Angels and Demons), in tandem with one of the sharpest screen writers in the business, Peter Morgan (The Queen, Last King of Scotland), fudge the ending on what was otherwise the first refreshing look at Nixon in over a quarter of a century? The kindest explanation is that the building tension throughout the movie needed a dramatic climax - the so-called "money shot". A more plausible explanation is that Hollywood liberals can't refrain from the annoying tendency to be gripped by media hubris, or what James Bowman called "the saga of media triumphalism".

The good news is that movie breaks ground that no other Hollywood director - let alone media personality - dared to break before.

President Nixon was a kind, loyal, intelligent, witty and wonderfully eccentric - if somewhat insecure - man. To it's credit, Peter Morgan and the hypnotic Frank Langella capture all of these traits beautifully. This is the first movie in which Nixon is not a villainous cartoon caricature. Nixon is portrayed much like every aide and advisor who worked with him described - the kind of guy who despised the snobbery and intellectual elitism of what Jefferson called the "natural aristocracy", and who treated everyone from Henry Kissinger to the guy who washed the windows with respect. A White House janitor recalls that Nixon always remembered his name and the birthdays of his children. Nixon showed an interest in everyone. He found the tiniest details of people's lives fascinating. He inspired a unique and heart-felt loyalty from his staff and advisers, a quality that Kevin Bacon portrays with wonderful sincerity.

The movie partially redeems itself at the end when Frost pays Nixon a farewell visit at his villa:

"Those parties of yours. The ones I read about in the papers. Tell me, do you actually enjoy them?", asks Nixon.

"Yes, of course," replies a befuddled Frost.

"Really?", wonders Nixon. "You have no idea how fortunate that makes you. Liking people. And being liked. That facility you have with people. That lightness. That charm. I don’t have it. Never have. Makes you wonder why I chose a life which hinged on being liked. I’m better suited to a life of thought. Debate. Intellectual discipline. Say, maybe we got it wrong. Maybe you should have been the politician. And I the rigorous interviewer."

For all of what the movie gets all wrong, it's more than made up for with what the movie gets completely correct - and it's a must see for that reason alone.


(Quotes from Bob Woodward, The Washington Post, and The Times of London were researched by National Review Online's Fred Schwarz)

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