Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Frost/Nixon: You Never Get Over It

We're forty years after the day Nixon resigned.  I was a kid working for Dad's chemical company.  When Nixon flew away from DC in that helicopter, we paused to listen on the office radio.  For the previous two years, Watergate had been a steady drip drip drip of news stories that made no sense to me -- Haldeman?  Ehrlichman?  Dean?  Colson? G. Gordon Liddy?    Then Nixon was gone, Ford pardoned him, and we moved on to disco and Star Wars.

Tonight, enjoying director Ron Howard's film adaptation of the stage play by Peter Morgan, I found myself weeping more than once.  Why?

It's largely a comedy.   Part of the fun is that it's a boxing movie disguised as a series of dry news interviews.  In one corner, we have little celebrity-besotted Frost (Michael Sheen) who often looks startled even while he smiles and mouths positive thoughts. In the other corner, we have jovial, wily Nixon (Frank Langella).  As in any boxing movie, each of the combatants goes back to an entourage for support.   Kevin Bacon is especially strong as Nixon's most ardent defender; Sam Rockwell is the outraged Nixon-hater who berates Frost.  There are running gags, about Frost's "effeminate" shoes (real men wear laces),  and how Nixon disarms Frost with some personal observation in the thirty seconds before an interview begins.

So, why cry?  Thirty years ago, a ten-year anniversary documentary called "Summer of Judgment" got the same reaction from me, even while it told us how Senators who voted for impeachment reacted the same way!  Senator after Senator, interviewed about that day, said, "Then, funny thing, after the vote, I went back to my office and cried."  Another said, "I cried.  Not for Nixon, God knows -- for the country, that it had come to this." Another Senator said, "Then I went back into my office and --"  he swallowed hard, "it was pretty tough.."

But now?  I think it's the feelings of connection and betrayal.  Nixon's voice and image were part of my childhood.  I'd waited up late to hear whether George Wallace might cause Nixon to lose the close race in 1968.   I remember watching his inauguration on a black-and-white TV in Mrs. Finkle's 4th grade, and his daughter's wedding.  When Nixon was under attack for Watergate, I didn't get the details, but I got the narrative:   "I'm a serious patriot trying to do the best I can to save the world, and these profane, childish, outlandish, insinuating left wing enemies are all over me. Trust me."  I did.  But he had been lying the whole time.  I'm still not over it.

In the movie,  Frost uses pages of notes to confront Nixon with quotes from some unpublished transcripts.  Nixon, as always, implies that he's being treated unfairly:  "I'm not using any notes." It's a great detail that Frost drops the notes and leans in to insist on three specific confessions. 

An earlier scene, probably the author's invention, has tipsy Nixon phoning anxious Frost late at night to chat.  Nixon is lonely, drunk, and, for once, candid.   He wants to connect to Frost, someone who, like him, has been scorned by those born to privilege.  It's a strong scene, allowing Langella to let loose, and requiring Sheen to sit still, reacting to the phone.

In the end, the movie is about something religion teaches us about:  the need for confession, the need for absolution, and the hell when it's denied. 

Read "Nixon's Voice," my reflection on Nixon in works of opera and fiction

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