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Now More Than Ever February 18, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1970s, Movies.
Tags: ,

I finally got around to seeing Frost/Nixon the other day, and it turned out to be generally better than I expected. I’d heard great things about the play, but I have a record of mixed reactions to Ron Howard’s films, and my usual complaint is that he never really digs into the emotional depth of his characters, preferring to merely depict action as it unfolds. With some of his films, like Night Shift or Splash or Cocoon, this approach served the material well, and the light comedy was handled adeptly. It really didn’t need to go any deeper. However, in other movies like Apollo 13 or A Beautiful Mind, I kept wanting to know more about what made everyone tick. The stories moved along, the attention to visual and cultural detail was always impeccable (in any of Howard’s period pieces, notice how well clothes, hair, background signs and the like are handled), but only the surface of the characters’ souls was scratched.

So bearing all that in mind, I think Howard handled Frost/Nixon very well, especially in terms of how well we get to know aspects of both its main characters. Michael Sheen captures the superficiality of Frost very well, along with his glib charm and ease moving within the celebrity culture. This is juxtaposed with the more insular world of Nixon’s California exile of the mid 1970s, where the disgraced fallen President surrounds himself with die-hard loyalists and works on his memoirs. Where Frost wants the Nixon interviews to help him to be taken more seriously, Nixon sees them as an opportunity to return to public life on his own terms, besides pocketing a nice chunk of dough for the effort. Since Frost hired a couple of actual journalists for his researchers, there was a lot of pressure on him to get Nixon to truly open up, to confess the crimes of Watergate and other blotches on his Presidency – the film depicts the interviews as a boxing battle of sorts, where a big dramatic moment is delivered as Nixon reveals more about his views of the Presidency than he had planned on.

But I remember when those interviews were done, and when they aired. And the general reaction ranged from tame to boredom. They made fun of them on Saturday Night Live with Eric Idle as Frost and Dan Aykroyd as Nixon, blabbering endlessly about having breakfast in 1921 while Frost fell asleep. The bit was even cribbed from years later whenever Gilbert Gottfried did “Old Groucho” on Howard Stern’s radio show. There really wasn’t some HUGE DRAMATIC TELL-ALL MOMENT!!!! the way the film/play sets up, but for the way we can accept it within the framework of this story itself, it works very well, and it ultimately effective.

Langella’s Nixon is an Oscar-worthy performance – he captures the main essence of the guy along with a lot of quiet subtleties without it all seeming like an over-the-top imitation somewhere beyond David Frye on steroids. Langella manages to depict a bitter defeated man, smart enough to be honest with himself as far as his own misanthropy while at the same time overflowing with self-loathing over his inability to break free of it – and thus Langella becomes the entirety of Nixon – not just a crooked politician, but a tragic figure who spread his tragedy to the rest of the country once he got into the driver’s seat.

Then again, another thing I liked about this movie was in the depiction of crusading journalist/Nixon hater James Reston Jr, played by Sam Rockwell – he personifies the self-righteous boomer lefto who’d want to see Nixon crawl as if Nixon’s crimes were some sort of personal attack on him, and as much as he’s satisfied with the results of the Frost interviews in the end, even he is slightly affected when he meets Nixon in person for the first time, and the abstraction he’s built into a monster in his mind is just another famous guy. It’s weird to think back on Nixon and place him into context – especially after seeing the real legacy of Watergate in that later politicians from local crumb bums to later Presidents would only learn from Nixon’s mistakes to the point that they’d be better at avoiding the same fate after committing similar or even WORSE crimes.

One of the best scenes in the film depicting a late-night drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost where Nixon bares his soul a bit on how much he resented the Eastern media/political establishment (yet at the same time wanting its respect) is pure fiction, though it allows us to hear writer Peter Morgan’s version (in any case) of Nixon’s inner character, and he captures it very well. Nixon remains a fascinating political biography and psychohistory – a man who came from bitter poverty and constantly had a chip on his shoulder as far as his treatment at the hands of the Ivy League media set of his day, battling them over and over again while never realizing that he was only beating himself up in the end, even in cases like Alger Hiss where he turned out to be right in the end, but it STILL didn’t matter, since Hiss was all charm and likeable and smiley, and Nixon was the frowny lip sweating scowl creature who seemed to be crawling under his own skin. People preferred to willfully ignore the commie’s commieness since the accuseer was, well… just sorta slimy. Why would anyone whose karma seemed to drip unpopularity enter politics or public life? Nixon thought about it himself – another wonderful moment in this film comes when he confesses to Frost how much he envies Frost’s ability to like parties and being around people.

And this, in the end, is how the movie made me feel bad for Nixon, the first President I remember, one who I made a dartboard out of when I was a kid – I kept thinking, “Hey wait, I hate being around most people too! And I think a lot of my fellow Ivy League eastern establishment types are over-entitled sheltered snots!”


My favorite moment in the movie? Easy! After Nixon is finished with the “rough” Watergate interview where he bared his soul far more than he wanted to, he walks out of the house visibly shaken, the veneer of the Presidency and of the master politician gone – for those moments at least. He walks up to a woman carrying a small dog, pats the dog gently, and asks her if it’s a Dachshund. He plays with the dogs ears a little and smiles. The dog cheers him up, and he goes on his way.

Substitute a cat for that dog and substitute me for Nixon, and it’s EXACTLY what I’d do to make myself feel better after a bad experience with the press or anything else. I like animals better than people too! So how could I not feel for the guy?

Oh, the pic – who knew he ever did a duet with Jack Benny? I thought the only Jew he liked was Kissinger.


1. Carol Cullen Smith - February 23, 2009

Michael Sheen and Frank Langella started with Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse here in London, before the intact production transferred to the West End. The two of them then followed it to Broadway. They had plenty of time and had done a lot of work figuring out what ‘made them tick’ before Ron Howard even came near them. I’m not surprised that carried over to the film.

Maybe Ron Howard should only touch material that needs more in depth characterization when the actors have already done a couple of years of work before he gets to them! [grin]

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