Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ron Howard's "Frost / Nixon": For me, it brings back memories

"Richard Milhous Nixon: If the President does it, then that means it is not illegal.

"David Paradine Frost (after hestitaging): I’m sorry?"

Okay, I’m not going to try to import FinalDraft into Blogger to reproduce some of Peter Morgan’s screenplay for Ron Howard’s latest big film, “Frost / Nixon”, from Universal (with the Valkyrie opening), Imagine, Relativity Media, Working Title and Studio Canal (France). The non-fiction biographical account of the “the trial of Richard Nixon” (played by Frank Langhella, at the hands of the young, foppish enterprising British journalist (played by British/Welsh actor Michael Sheen) hits all the multiplexes Christmas Day, after two weeks of very limited runs. I saw it this morning (Dec, 25) for just $6 at a modern AMC in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, in a large auditorium about one third full, with a surprising amount of (Holiday) activity on the mall when I came out, giving the economic circumstances. AMC bills this as “AMC Select” but Universal is using its own trademark rather than its indie brand “Focus”, which it did use for “Milk”.

The film may look a bit too big. The 2.35:1 format makes the closeups on Nixon a little less tortuous than they might be (I think this movie almost needs an Alfred Hitchcock focus -- one even wonders how Gus Van Sant would have done it.)

I’ll get to the “moral” problems, obviously important to Morgan in a moment. But the movie has a real “story,” the progress of Frost’s own venture, and the amount of risk he took to set up Richard Nixon’s day of reckoning (near his San Clemente, CA home) in the spring of 1977 (when Jimmy Carter, having defeated Gerald Ford, had started his one term presidency). Frost is unable to get the major networks to buy his effort, and sets up a self-syndication that anticipates business strategy for today’s Internet. (Yet, we see him walking around holding rotary phones – this film really looks like the 70s.) His career in exuberant satire had gone from Britain to Australia (the film has brief shots from London and Sydney), and here is this media comic from “Mother Country” almost about to claim America back (only kidding, or course). It strikes me that it would take “Mother Country” to bring Nixon to his knees. Frost even taunts Nixon with a personal assessment that if Nixon doesn't come clean about his obstruction of justice, it will taunt him for the remainder of his life.

There is a point where Nixon, in some kind of extended “senior moment”, calls Frost, and gives an impassioned speech to the effect that only one of them will survive to remain “in the limelight.” That recharges Frost’s own batteries, and sets up Nixon’s final unraveling.

The movie does start with a rendition of Nixon’s “37th White House address” on Aug. 8, 1974, and the hollow triumph of his shameful departure (as a 37th President) from the White House Aug. 9. The Ford pardon is briefly covered. Later, after a series of exchanges where Frost seems to put up his own money, Nixon’s advisers (Jack Brennan, played by an aging Kevin Bacon) hover to protect him. Brennan wants “Watergate” to consume only 25% of the elapsed time of the tapes, and quibbles with Frost over the “definition” of Watergate. Brennan notes that Frost's lace-less Italian shoes look "effeminate", and Nixon repeats the comment to Frost, almost insinuating a belief that the flamboyant Frost could be gay while still wondering about his dating African American girl friends. (The film explains the evolution of the political suffix “-gate”.) But at the first interview, Frost runs out of his starting place by asking “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”

On Frost’s side, there is plenty of cover, most of all researcher James Reston Jr. (a youngish Sam Rockwell) who so desperately want to bring Nixon down just out of indignation so familiar from that period of history.

At the very end, there is a moment of quiet conversation as Frost and Nixon overlook the Pacific Ocean, and Nixon asks Frost if he likes parties. The Nixon says it must be wonderful to like people and be liked by people. He says that Frost should have been the politician, and Nixon the journalist or writer. Nixon says he is still fascinated by solitary ruminations and "intellectual discipline." Nixon knew (pun intended) that he could rationalize any set of beliefs. At the Ninth Street Center, Nixon was classified as a "subjective feminine." Yes, we had a psychologically feminine man in the White House in Richard Milhous Nixon.

All of this happened at an important time in my life. I was leaving Univac, and starting work as a mainframe computer programmer at NBC in New York City on Aug. 12. People from the network who stumble on this blog probably remember me, and what was going on then. I was driving my Pinto in suburban New Jersey when I heard Nixon’s Aug. 8 speech (“I am not a quitter…”), and spent Aug. 9 at a customer site in White Plains NY on my last day with Univac, while Nixon was leaving the White House. On Aug. 12 I would start at NBC, and that evening I would hear Gerald Ford say “I am a Ford, not a Model T”. He could say some bizarre things (like his comment about eastern Europe). I would move into the East Village (the border of it) on Sept. 7 (after a celebrative weekend in Mexico City Labor Day) and start a very important four-plus years in my life. It seemed fitting for me that one period end and another begin while Nixon was leaving. A film like this brings back those days. I did watch Ford’s pardon speech from my Cast Iron Building apartment on Sunday afternoon Sept. 8, almost the first thing to happen after I moved in.

This film is like a term paper that the teacher marks up in red ink with constructive criticism, but still gives an "A" to. I was quite moved, and give it a full five stars.

Liberation Video offers "David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon" (1977), directed by Jorn Winther, which is in my Netflix queue (with a long wait).

Picture: Mine, taken from the Washington Monument, Aug. 2007. Watergate is to the right of the Kennedy Center. I don’t happen to have a closer one right now of my own. I’ve been in the Watergate just once for a party. In the early 1970s, it was one of Washington’s most “prestigious” condominiums.

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