Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Ron Howard | Frost/Nixon

cheesburgers and new shoes
by Douglas Messerli

Peter Morgan (screenplay, based on his stage play) Ron Howard (director) Frost/Nixon / 2008

Our current national “leader,” Trump, occasionally likes to compare himself with Richard M.  Nixon, especially when it comes to issues of “law and order.” But as Peter Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction quietly reveal, Nixon, although often a narcissist, was much more uncertain about everything about which Trump is certain. And, although Nixon also felt that even an illegal action when it was done by the President, became automatically legal, he had far more doubts about his behavior than Trump could ever imagine. No one ever denied, moreover, that Nixon was an intelligent man. And most importantly, unlike Trump, Nixon actually had a glimmer of a conscience, which is the theme of this chronological telling.
     Although escalating the Vietnam war, and with the help of Kissinger, moving it into the then-peaceful country of Cambodia and, obviously, ordering up the botched robbery of the Democratic Washington, D.C. headquarters, which eventually grew into the rubric described as the Watergate affair, Nixon actually accomplished some important things, including ending the draft and establishing an all-volunteer military force (for the negative effects of this, see my comments on Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods); he founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, which, in turn oversaw the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts (all of which Trump has worked hard to abolish); his administration dedicated $100-million to begin the war on cancer, including the creation of cancer centers throughout the country; with Title IX he opened up the possibility of women playing collegiate sports; he oversaw the peaceful desegregation of southern schools, and, with the 26th Amendment, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18; he authorized the FBI and Special Task Forces to eliminate organized crime; he was the first president to give Native Americans the right for self-determination and returned their sacred land; and in appointing Nancy Hanks as the first active leader of the National Endowment for the Arts, he strengthened that institution significantly.
     On the international level, he participated with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; and, of course, he was the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China (see elsewhere in this series of My Year titles my essay on John Adams’ Nixon in China), where he worked to develop open and normalized relations with that country.
      These achievements, however, are to not at all to whitewash his continued involvement with the Vietnam war nor his and his associates’ labyrinthine attempts to bend the democracy he was supposedly representing for his own personal attempts to get reelected, and which ended in his resignation, which is where Howard’s film begins.
       I mention his successes only because, after tentatively agreeing to four interviews, the last dedicated to Watergate, Nixon himself laments to his aide, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) that with the discussion of the Vietnam war and Watergate, he will have little time to discuss any of his achievements.
       Cambridge-educated David Frost, if once thought of as a budding journalist, was in 1974, the year of Nixon’s resignation, was then working in a kind of reality show in Australia, touting the miracles of a manacle man who could magically escape even when placed, upside down, under water. Although perhaps still loved by the masses, Frost was scoffed at as a “talk show host” by most serious journalists.
       How Frost ever even had the temerity to call Nixon’s agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) to set up an interview, is almost unimaginable. But having just negotiated a good advance for Nixon’s own biography, Lazar perceived how desperately his client wanted a more immediate way of correcting the record and bringing him somewhat closer to normalcy.
       He knew he dared not take on an interview with the hard questions Mike Wallace or any of the other serious network interviewers might have posed, while Frost was seen as a lightweight, who would probably lob a few friendly questions that would allow the former President to create a forum for his rehabilitation. Calling Frost (Michael Sheen) back, Lazar got an outstanding advance for a TV interview of $600,000, made even more astounding by the fact that Frost had not yet found any network supporters, and the first payment of $200,000 probably came out of his own pocket.
      Already on the airplane to Washington, D.C., Frost reveals his frivolous nature by picking up a young woman, Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), who stays with him throughout the rest of the film.
      Meanwhile the team of Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), and John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) attempt to comprehend Frosts’ strategy without much success, since Frost himself, is seldom there, running after possible funders as insignificant as the manufacturer of “Weed Eater,” only to be turned down again and again. The three strategists, accordingly, imagine questions that Frost might ask, while one of them plays Nixon, attempting to answer them as the former POTUS might. At one point, when they attempt to engage Frost for the evening, he instead runs off the a movie preview—a film-fantasy which he himself has produced.
       Without any advertisers or other methods of support, Frost convinces the networks such as BBC and his Australian station to fund the interviews themselves, thus holding control over all future rights, which he assures them will be substantial.
        Frost begins the first interview with a rather intriguing question: “Why didn’t you, Mr. Nixon, just burn the tapes?” But the tricky Dick Nixon (played by the marvelous actor, Frank Langella, whom the make-up artists did not even attempt to transform into someone that looked like the real man), turns the question on its head, in a long rambling answer arguing that, actually, Johnson had set up the taping system in the White House, which did actually allow its occupants to speak without having to call in a secretary, and were, perhaps, just too difficult to uninstall.
        Another question, “What gives you pleasure, Mr. Nixon?” allows the criminal to ramble on endlessly for the rest of the allotted time about issues such as his daughter Julie’s marriage, etc, etc. Frost has simply lobbed empty questions that take him nowhere.
        Still, somewhat self-assured, and refusing the intense advice his strategists provide him, Frost nonetheless begins the second session a bit more successfully, by insisting that Nixon explain why he extended the Vietnam War into Cambodia, killing thousands, and turning a previously peaceful people against the US. A short but powerful video follows.
       Nixon, however, simply justifies the attacks arguing that the Cambodians had guns that eventually would make their way in Vietnam to kill young American boys. Answering a straw man’s response that he wishes that the Americans had previously taken the gun away that killed his son, Nixon insists that his only regret is that the US had not gone into Cambodia earlier. Checkmate no. 2.
       The third interview, not even as memorable, does not go much better, and Frost is now being generally presented in the press as a patsy. The Australians pull out of the deal to broadcast the tapes, and there is a possibility that England may follow.
        Totally despondent, Frost cannot even suggest what he might want for dinner when his girlfriend rushes out to the local Tiki bar to bring back food.
        When the telephone rings, soon after, Frost picks it up to answer “a cheeseburger.” That sounds good answers the voice, who is Nixon calling him at moment of deep despair and somewhat dunk. For the next several moments Nixon bemoans his own inability to ever be appreciated for his political talents, arguing that men “like them” never are truly recognized for their abilities no matter hard to they attempt to prove themselves. Projecting upon the Cambridge graduate who nightly parties with singers, Playboy girls, and other celebrities, and is still beloved by a large swath of his audience, Nixon continues to group his sense of failure with Frost.
     When Nixon finally hangs up, it is as if Frost has suddenly awaken to his responsibility, reading all of the files that his strategists had created for him, and calling up Birt in D.C. to ask him, after previously refusing, to check up on the Colson communication that the staff-member believes in in another Washington library.
      Frost stays awake, the entire night reading, with Birt, having hit the payload, returning to give Frost and him just enough to arrive the house where they are filming the interview, just before Nixon does, a bit late. Nixon refuses to even shake Frost’s hand.
       As the two sit, Frost whispers that he will begin with last night’s phone conversation, perhaps putting the former President off guard. Yet Frost makes no mention about their telephone conversation, but immediately launches into the heart of the Watergate events, demanding to know whether or not Nixon knew of the attempted break-in.
       As expected, Nixon blames it all on H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who he claims orchestrated the robbery without his knowledge.
Yet this time, Frost is prepared, and quotes tape after tape, and finally the letter Nixon had personally written to Colson, demonstrating that Nixon not only knew about the events ahead of time but was involved in paying off anyone who might point to the three of them.
       The enultimate intense scene is worth quoting:

NIXON I’ve always maintained that what they were doing, what we were all doing was not criminal. Look, when you’re in office you’ve gotta do a long of things that are not, in the strictest sense legal, But you do them because they are in the greater interest of the nation.
FROST: Wait, let me get this correctly, are you really saying that in certain situations the President can decide what is best for the nation and then do something that is illegal?
NIXON: I’m saying when the President does it, it is not illegal.  

      From there Frost demands an apology from the former President of the country, insisting that its citizens need such an apology.
      Brennan quickly interrupts the interview, taking Nixon into the next room to warn him about what he might be admitting, but Nixon rejects not facing up to Frost’s request, and returns to admit that he is sorry for what he has done, that he has not only let the people down, but let down democracy.
      Obviously that admittance of guilt is what everyone had sought and presumed they would never hear out of the mouth of Richard Nixon.
       Frost, finally, has won the debates, and temporarily rises, briefly, as a new kind of hero. Although as the film rider suggests, he never did anything in his journalistic career that could match this moment.
       Yet the screenplay adds a kind of gentle ending, as Frost and his girlfriend travel down to Nixon’s sea-side home at San Clemente just to say goodbye, giving him a present of the pair of Italian shoes, worn by Frost, which Nixon told his associates was too effeminate.
        After a few more words, their guests turn to go, with Nixon shouting after, “Did I really call you the night before the final interview?” “Yes,” Frost responds. “What did we talk about,” asks the nervous Nixon. "Cheesburgers," answers Frost.
      If Howard’s cinematic structure is rather simplistic, and Morgan’s script—as many critics have argued—too fictional in its content, director and author still have created a suspenseful tale based simply on one man asking questions and the other answering. We might even imagine that in those first three first interviews, the friendliness of Frost’s questions led, in that final interview, to Nixon letting down his guard, resulting in no way out of a deeply-held guilt which needed to be released not only for the health of the nation, but for the survival of the man himself.

Los Angeles, June 24, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).       

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