Thursday, April 30, 2009

Frost/Nixon vs. Frost/Nixon

What would a previous generation think of our obsession with the ghost of Richard Nixon, which now goes on in the artistic world? He was castigated in his lifetime as a plastic man, incapable of human emotion; a bloodless, small-minded crook who cheapened the nation's institutions, seemingly out of frustrated resentments going back to high school? Yet he appears in movie after movie, is a constant laughline, has even been animated in "Futurama," has remained in our consciousness in a way no one might have guessed back in 1974. Perhaps we miss him still.

The latest example is the Ron Howard movie "Frost/Nixon," starring Frank Langella as the latest screen incarnation of the thirty-seventh president of the United States. It's based on a Peter Morgan play, which also starred Langella and his opposite number, Michael Sheen, as the interviewer David Frost. Peter Morgan, who also produced the screenplay, is the screenwriter of "The Queen" and scripted "The Last King of Scotland."

A series of television interviews might not make for gripping theater, but the Nixon/Frost interviews (as they were previously known) were theater of their own, and they were gripping. What Morgan did was take the obvious story - of Nixon's first attempt at rehabilitation - and marry it to the story of Frost, as a frustrated entertainer angling for respectability, fame, and what our current age refers to as "gravitas." By putting Frost's name first, he shows us the entertainer, the one asking the question, is now more important than the one who is being questioned.

Langella does a serviceable Nixon, giving the gentle side of Nixon in ashes, though I think the definitive screen Nixon was provided by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's movie. Langella's Nixon at times lapses into a bellicosity and plainspoken rhythm that seems false when compared to the real man. The real Nixon, strangely enough, presents a dilemma for the dramatist. Viewed in retrospect, the many aspects of Nixon's legend - the sweaty upper lip, the shifty eyes, the anger - were much more subtle in real life than a motion picture is capable of showing. Hopkins wisely chose to give us an outward picture of the internal soul wrestling we could distinguish in the real Nixon. Langella's Nixon is already broken, but he remains a proud man who isn't yet ready to bow to the demands of the historical record.

The Frost character undergoes the biggest transformation from play to movie. In the play, Frost was the other boxer in the ring, a Rocky who gets his unexpected date with the prize fighter and bests him. This survives, but Frost's "lightweight" credentials, his fecklessness, come forward more and somehow make him less of an adversary. He seems more of a spectator in the film. The boxing metaphor, which survives, feels inadequate, at least until the end, when we have the inevitable montage of the previously disengaged Frost suddenly cramming the night before the final Watergate interview like Sylvester Stallone on the heavy bag.

The play, I think, is superior to the movie because of its brevity. The movie also feels the need to quickly dismiss Nixon from the stage after a final meeting between the two, giving him a dismissive ending that doesn't quite match what comes before. The film has spent two hours convincing us of a certain amount of grandeur in this frustrating man, but he receives an unsatisfactory epitaph. Frost goes off to renewed celebrity, but he need only look at Nixon to understand how long it may last. The play was tight, while the film wants to be about more than it is.

The reason we're treated to Nixon yet again, of course, has more to do with the present than the past. As several extras on the DVD make clear, "Frost/Nixon" has direct bearing on our own late political age, the age of George W. Bush. As one of the participants in the real "Frost-Nixon" interviews observes, Nixon's defense that "when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal" is just as relevant in the shadow of waterboarding, Abu Gharib, and warrantless wiretapping. There's a fundamental problem this this logic.

In the play, Reston, one of Frost's researchers and one of Nixon's harshest critics, laments his time in a California hotel room, trapped with a television constantly replaying the same skin flicks. "Is there anything more depressing as a porno the second time around?" he asks. Watergate, in effect, was porn for all those who hated Nixon. It paraded his worst character flaws and transformed them to national legends, and it cemented the worst suspicions about Nixon's party in the national consciousness.

With Bush, the skin flick seemingly gets a second national viewing. But the audience at the end of "Frost/Nixon" probably feels some sympathy for the fallen president who gropes toward an apology at the end. Morgan wisely avoids the kind of demonization all too evident in the last eight years. By replaying Watergate and reexamining its chief actor, we are reminded that our national obsessions only reveal for us that the monster in the palace often looks a lot more like us than we want to admit, and the hatred they engender is because they remind us of the fallacy of faith in heroes. We question them, but the answers don't seem to ever satisfy. It's a point worth remembering as the hysteria fades and we embrace another leader with ever more urgent needs for a savior.

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