Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Super Delegates: Richard M. Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" (2008)

Frank Langella
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: December 5, 2008
Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: Peter Morgan (Screenplay, Play)
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon
Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Frank Langella)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing
Delegates in Question:
-President Richard M. Nixon

There are few presidents who will boil one's blood nowadays quite like Richard M. Nixon. True, there are contemporaries like George W. Bush, of whom have their own notorious legacies, but Nixon's name comes with a lot of taboos. He is the man responsible for Watergate: an event so notorious that it has appeared in several Oscar-nominated films including All the President's Men, Nixon, Forrest Gump, and most recently in director Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. His notoriety is inescapable and the fascination with him continues to resonate in pop culture in ways that neither president beside him (Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford) has. If John F. Kennedy is considered one of the most revered in 20th century history, Nixon is one of the most despised for reasons that still linger thanks to it being less than 50 years ago. People are still alive who remember his time in office, including his controversial stance on the Vietnam War. In fact, the only great thing that can be said of Nixon's term is that it inspired a whole lot of antiwar masterpieces like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.
Frost/Nixon is a peculiar entry in the Nixon depictions for one main reason. It's the only one to necessarily sympathize him. The film is based on the interviews he held with David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) following his infamous resignation from office. The film opens with a mockumentary-style introduction of the various characters, all of whom are criticizing the Nixon administration as footage of the former president plays. There are plenty who are frustrated by his abuse of power, and there's almost a sense that what is to follow is a vendetta against him. The only real leverage provided is that Nixon never acknowledged his involvement in Watergate, nor apologized, at the start of the film. However, the eccentric Frost does his best to set up an interview which will ambush the answer out of him. The only conflict really is that Nixon wants to put all of his mistakes as president under the umbrella term "Watergate" as opposed to addressing it straight on.
Both Sheen and Langella played these roles in a stage version of the same story, also penned by Peter Morgan. To an extent, the story couldn't be less interesting over 40 years later. Everyone knows that Nixon is guilty. Even the trailers promoting the movie didn't mince around the third act reveal in which Nixon suggests that "If the president does it, it's not illegal." Speaking as this is the draw for the initial interview, the marketing dropped the ball on any suspense - no matter how well it's known in history. However, the bigger twist isn't any big revelation on Watergate. It's more about the conflicted interior life of a man whose career and reputation is forever soiled due to foolish decisions that effected millions of people. The Watergate scandal has been handled better. Even at the time, films like All the President's Men covered more bases than Frost/Nixon did. So, what exactly gives it the edge?
The easy answer is to imagine that this film is a sports drama where the knockout punch is to leave the other party speechless. There are many on microphones feeding information and strategizing how to win. Frost wants those answers, which will warrant his hefty price tag just to get Nixon. Nixon simply wants to do a memoir-style interview to cover his career, save for the embarrassing stuff. It's generally what makes the build-up to the big reveal all the more impressive. Langella may not look like Nixon close-up, but he comes to embody the character so well that it doesn't matter. It's why he received a nomination. Even during drunken phone calls to Frost have a certain humanity to him. The final moments between these two figures aren't of bitterness, but of acceptance of a match well fought - in which the final word uttered between the two isn't Watergate or anything of the sort, but simply "Cheeseburgers."
It is likely that there's readers out there who hate Nixon and may find this depiction a little disingenuous. However, it does raise a lot of interesting points regarding politics. Well, not directly. This will be covered more clearly in other Super Delegates columns on Nixon. It isn't so much about what Nixon did, but how he has been changed by the experience. It's also about his crippling loneliness, which even drives him to note that Frost may have been a better politician just because he was more sociable. The paranoia and isolation of Nixon's personal life isn't something that gets projected because, well, no president looks good if they're weak. Everyone of the presidents in history have had their moment of weakness. Nixon's just happened to be on a bigger scale.
The big takeaway isn't that Nixon admitted faults. Yes, it clears his conscience in a way that his isolation building up a defense wouldn't allow. However, it makes him more personable and suggests that he is as flawed as any human. Speaking as the only president since with as notorious of a reputation is George W. Bush, it's amazing how demonized they become. Director Oliver Stone gave Bush his own sympathetic biopic mere months before he left office with W.  The film suggests that it was a mix of being a frat boy as well as trying to impress his father. It likely was too controversial to get a good reception at the time with many preferring the negligent Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary interpretation instead. Still, presidents continue to be mocked for their faults, not choosing to accept that they're humans. It's likely because everyone wants them to be better than the law. It only seems like time until President Barrack Obama gets his own biopic (though there is currently one about his first date with Michelle Obama that is planned for release this year).
Most of all, Frost/Nixon embodies the paranoia that comes with scandal. Along with Kennedy's assassination, the faith in the presidency has shifted greatly with many more questioning than accepting the law of the land. With many journalists also quick to set up interviews with candidates or victims of various circumstances, the gossip cycle is even more prominent today than it has ever been. Even figures like Caitlyn Jenner make news by giving an interview (when she was Bruce Jenner) to explain why they're transitioning between sexes. The gossip culture is rich, and nobody is without fault. In a way, it plays into the deeper core of the film, which is Nixon's loneliness. Most people, even outside of politics, must put up a front simply to avoid looking dumb in the press during a time where a simple hiccup is front page news. While Watergate could still be a big deal now, it likely would get buried underneath so much other press.
Still, Nixon remains a notorious figure, and one of the least loved presidents in contemporary history. While it is easy to look back at figures like Andrew Jackson or Andrew Johnson and despise them for bad calls, there's at least a big gap between their deaths and the modern era. Nixon only died in 1994, which is within many of the readers' lifespans. Still, there's something curious about why he remains one of the most talked about presidents in Oscar-nominated films. This isn't even the last we'll be hearing from him. He'll be back around a few times. However, it felt important to start with Frost/Nixon solely to personify a deeper and more flawed look not only at his life, but at other presidents' personal lives that nobody knows. They all have their mistakes, the only difference is they're not as bad as Nixon's were.

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