Monday, December 15, 2008

Nixon redux

We're nearing the end of 2008 which means that most journalists will naturally be thinking about top ten lists of the year. (We sort of can't help it.)

One of the movies that's been popping up on nearly everybody's top ten list is Ron Howard's adaptation of the Broadway play Frost/Nixon.

Which is a shame, because Frost/Nixon pretty much sucks.

I should say at the outset, that this is a subject that is near and dear to me (as much as Richard Nixon could be near and dear to anyone). Not that I feel in any way warmly towards Nixon. Quite the opposite. But in terms of presidents that we've had over the last 50 years or so, I've always believed that (along with Lyndon Johnson) Nixon is the most interesting. And he's the one I've been reading the most about over the last year (with the exception of Bush).

Few men were as devious -- or as filled with self-loathing. But few presidents were quite as bright. (Henry Kissinger didn't necessarily agree with me on this; when the Watergate transcripts were finally published Kissinger was stunned at how cluttered and unfocused Nixon's thoughts were.)

And great things have been written about Nixon. Most recently, Rick Perlstein's book, Nixonland, which is a minor masterpiece. (And which really should have been on the Times' top ten books of 2008 along with Bart Gellman's Angler and From Schlub to Stud.)

Unfortunately, Nixonland ends just as the cracks in Nixon's presidency start appearing. The Watergate investigation and Nixon's ultimate resignation are glossed over.

Perhaps Perlstein thought he couldn't improve upon Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book, The Final Days -- another great book about Nixon.

The Final Days is -- from a literary perspective -- far more exciting than All the President's Men. Not to put down ATPM -- it should be the first book taught in Journalism 101 -- but it is a sort of convoluted story; you have to really pay attention to the all the different players and facets to understand the underpinnings of Watergate. (Which is, of course, necessary -- but somewhat tedious.) The Final Days, on the other hand, shows Nixon on the precipe of madness. Nixon is like a trapped animal, trying everything he can think of to claw his way out of danger. He cannot. It is fascinating.

And, yes, when you've gotten though all of this, I agree that the real-life Frost interviews with Nixon were extremely interesting in their own right. (It's one of the reasons I ultimately disagree with Kissinger -- I find it difficult to believe that Nixon was stupid after watching those interviews.)

Was there some measure of closure in hearing Nixon admit that he let the American people down?

I wasn't alive for the Nixon presidency, so I don't really know. But given the seriousness of the crimes he committed and the national trauma of what he put America through I can't imagine that a tepid admission of guilt and a few watery eyes on television was sufficient. (There was a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Nixon -- who craved power and acceptance so desperately -- was forced to relinquish it so humiliatingly. My response: "Not enough!")

But in the Ron Howard movie, this admission is seen as some sort of central event in American history. The interviews a kind of surrogate trial.

Oh, come on.

If you think that the Frost interviews were a seminal American event, then you should really read one of the books I talked about above. The high crimes and misdemeanors of the Nixon Administration had been extremely well documented by the time Nixon sat down with Frost. To think that the American public was knocked for a loop by hearing certain embarrassing things straight from the horse's mouth is slightly absurd.

But the more serious flaw in Frost/Nixon is the fact that the movie is boring (even for a Watergate fiend like me.)

Re-creating an interview is slightly redundant when the original interview exists and is plenty fascinating in its own right.

The only hope that the movie had of success is that the sparring between the two was heightened behind the scenes -- which it does with extremely marginal results. Even though he garnered a lot of praise, I think that Michael Sheen's performance as David Frost felt a little pip-squeakish. He flounders at first and then supposedly dominates in the end... but remind me why I should care about David Frost?

Oh, yes. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in paying Nixon off for the interview. (True.) Of course, he stands to make a lot of money if the interview is successful. (Which he did.) So it's sort of hard to feel a lot of sympathy for his financial plight.

Moreover, there was something sort of ridiculous about the fact that Frost has months and months to prepare for this interview and only seems to crack down and hit the books a couple of days before the final interview. (It reminded me a great deal of the "Montage" sequence and song from Team America.)

But the big question is: How is Nixon? Frank Langella (an actor I admire much more) gives us, I think, too broad a caricature. The gruff voice; the social awkwardness; the droopiness -- it all felt more like a cartoon than a real portrayal.

You're much better off actually watching the Frost-Nixon interviews.


By the way, being that we're at the end of the year, I'm going to write my own schlub take on all the big Oscar contenders this week. Tomorrow: Doubt.