Sunday, January 11, 2009


Sometime the propaganda put out by a studio about a new film, amazingly proves to be accurate. Here is the synopsis from Universal Films of the riveting new docu-drama film Frost/Nixon

"Synopsis: Oscar®-winning director Ron Howard brings to the screen writer Peter Morgan's (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) electrifying battle between Richard Nixon, the disgraced president with a legacy... Oscar®-winning director Ron Howard brings to the screen writer Peter Morgan's (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) electrifying battle between Richard Nixon, the disgraced president with a legacy to save, and David Frost, a jet-setting television personality with a name to make, in the untold story of the historic encounter that changed both: Frost/Nixon. Reprising their roles from Morgan's stageplay are Frank Langella, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Nixon, and Michael Sheen, who fully inhabited the part of Frost onstage in London and New York.

For three years after being forced from office, Nixon remained silent. But in summer 1977, the steely, cunning former commander-in-chief agreed to sit for one all-inclusive interview to confront the questions of his time in office and the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. Nixon surprised everyone in selecting Frost as his televised confessor, intending to easily outfox the breezy British showman and secure a place in the hearts and minds of Americans.

Likewise, Frost's team harbored doubts about their boss' ability to hold his own. But as cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits resulted. Would Nixon evade questions of his role in one of the nation's greatest disgraces? Or would Frost confound critics and bravely demand accountability from the man who'd built a career out of stonewalling? Over the course of their encounter, each man would reveal his own insecurities, ego and reserves of dignity -- ultimately setting aside posturing in a stunning display of unvarnished truth.

Frost/Nixon not only re-creates the on-air interview, but the weeks of around-the-world, behind-the-scenes maneuvering between the two men and their camps as negotiations were struck, deals were made and secrets revealed...all leading to the moment when they would sit facing one another in the court of public opinion.

Frost/Nixon is a collaboration between Imagine Entertainment and Working Title Films, with Academy Award® winners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard joining Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner as producers. Joining Langella and Sheen as the colorful real-life personalities who provide the men counsel is a formidable roster of actors including Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones and Matthew Macfadyen. --© Universal Pictures"

The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 2 minutes, and not a second is wasted in this film. If you care at all about American history and about America's only President who was both impeached and resigned, then this film should matter to you. He was known as 'Tricky Dick' and the moniker not only stuck but was accurate. He was devious, self-serving, and at times brilliant and farsighted (for example in regard to the policies he pursued with China). But of course besides his moniker, the thing he will forever be most remembered for is Watergate, indeed as the film reminds us adding the suffix --gate to some term for some cause celebre was spawned from the Watergate crisis. Sometimes stage plays make excellent movies (e.g. 'Doubt') sometimes, not so much. Sometimes actors can play the role well in both settings, sometimes not so much). Frank Langella pulls off the double dip in Oscar-worthy proportions, and even gets Nixon's demeanor and deep gruff voice right, as well as the facial nuances. One of the more amazing things, when I went and saw this movie in Charlotte (which sadly is only out in limited release) is that it appeals to young and old alike, for example my mother at 83 liked it as much as I did.

At the heart of the movie is unveiling the heart of Nixon through cross-examination
by the rather out of his depth British TV personality David Frost. Will he rise to the challenge, or will Nixon get the best of him? Will he expose Nixon, or will he be exposed as NOT the Grand Inquisitor? Can Nixon be bated, goaded, or surprised into revealing his real role in Watergate or not? To me without question the most chilling moment in the film is when Nixon says on camera and without reservation--- "when the President does something, then it's not illegal." To which Frost, who is stunned can only reply--- 'excuse me????'

What this film is really about is the arrogance of power, and how all political power tends to corrupt. A President who lives on a pedestal and a precipice and yet in splendid isolation, can begin believing his own rhetoric, PR, press clippings and the like. He can become a total narcissist which is pretty close to what Nixon was- self-centered, self-protective, self-justifying, self-pitying. Coeur in curvatus in se--- the heart turned in upon itself. The movie gets absolutely right the bit about Nixon's paranoia and inferiority complex (especially when compared to Kennedy who beat him in 1960) and his ever-burgeoning sense of entitlement, and feeling that he was bullet proof. But alas he had orchestrated his own demise with all those secret tapes. 'Be sure your sins will find you out'. What is interesting about Nixon in 1977 is how little remorse he had for all his wrong doing, how little he seemed to care about trying to bamboozle the American public and so betraying his sacred trust and oath. It is hard to feel sorry for man, but finally in the end when he cared about his legacy and how he would be remembered, he was a bit contrite, and even tried to give his library to Duke University. Duke, however, wanted nothing to do with Nixon and his tainted legacy, and I can hardly say I blame them.

It is of course unfair to judge a whole life on the basis of the worst thing one has done in life. Richard Nixon had many accomplishments in life which few but God will ever remember. But one day, I finally got another glimpse of the man which humanized him somewhat for me. I was in the White House with a member of the Pentagon doing a tour. Nowadays you have to know someone to even get in that place. And the person who made my day, and made the tour memorable was an elderly black man, a huge behemoth of a man, who had served seven Presidents on the White House staff. I asked him what was his saddest memory from the over 30 years he had worked at the White House. He almost immediately teared up and said "The day President Nixon resigned, and said farewell to all of us, and flew off from the White House lawn to San Clemente." I think I understand why-- it was not just because he had been witness to the fall of a once mighty man. It is because he had known the man personally, had liked at least part of what the man was, for Nixon had been good to him. And he had prayed for Nixon, as we all should have done, no matter our opinions of that President.

Jesus said 'judge not, lest ye be judged', by which he meant do not pronounce the final verdict on any other human being's life, not least because we cannot see inside a person's heart, nor know all that he was and was not. What Jesus did not mean is 'avoid critically evaluating your own and other's conduct'. Indeed, he argued for just the opposite approaching urging being discerning as serpents, without being as devious as they are alleged to be.

Go see this movie if you can, and see whether you think Nixon had a heart of darkness, or not. Be forewarned-- the unveiling in this movie may be unnerving when you start to question your own motives, and what you might have done were you the President. 'There but for the grace of God.....'


Unknown said...

I have always found it hard to go back to my college years (Vietnam) era and look at movies or read books that reflect those times. I have never seen a Vietnam war movie. If I went to see this movie, and I might,it would be a first. The anger and disappointment are very real with me. McNamara's confessions and such still send me up a wall. The deep lying and the deep dying of those days. It all made people who were otherwise pretty normal do crazy stuff. And I still think I did so little to stop the madness.

Marc Axelrod said...

I remember these debates being on TV when I was a kid. I remember how heated and testy they got. I am looking forward to seeing this movie. Sounds like Langella really nailed the part of Nixon. His role in the movie Dave kind of prepared him for this more serious role.

Jeff said...

I love your blog for the variety of topics and depth of biblical discussion.
May I offer one correction on this post? I don't believe that Nixon was impeached although impeachment hearings had begun.

Mr. Guthrie said...

Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only Presidents to be impeached. Nixon resigned after a U.S. House of Representitives Committee recommended to the full House to impeach Nixon. Nixon resign to avoid being impeached.

Unknown said...

It is true - Nixon was not impeached, but he would have been if he hadn't resigned. Only Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton have been impeached.

James Pate said...

I've also heard about Nixon's tender side.

It's been a while since I watched the Nixon/Frost interviews. Granted, I wasn't alive during the Nixon years, but I watched them on C-Span. I remember that Frost was asking Nixon some hard questions, such as one about Nixon appointing someone to hear the tapes who couldn't hear that well. Frost told a joke about that, and he had to whisper to Nixon that it was a joke, after which we got to see Nixon's funny grin. It's like Frost was trying to establish himself as a respected journalist, while achieving Nixon's desire to look good in the interview.

I don't remember Nixon saying what he did was legal because he was President. I also don't remember him admitting guilt. He just said that a small matter snowballed into something big. But I may have a different impression if I saw the interviews again--perhaps on YouTube.

derek said...

thanks for the review. my wife and i watched the movie this past weekend and we both loved it. we also watched "good night, and good luck" (another politcal/media film). have you seen that one? any thoughts?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Derek: Yes, I reviewed the movie on this blog when it came out, and you should be able to find it thru the search engine on the blog.


Stanford J. Young said...

Just a quick comment - albeit late in the game. I have a lot of compassion for Nixon in some ways b/c he had obvious weaknesses and failings (kind of like King Saul). But, that's not an excuse for his wrongdoing.

However, the one poignant and salient point that they have Nixon say, "When the President does something it's not illegal" was actually taken out of context from the original tapes. I listened to an NPR interview (I believe the program was Fresh Air) with Langella and he actually noted this was not in the original context. In fact, he noted that where Nixon actually said it was in a context in which it was rather innocuous. But, he thought it would be useful to place it where he did. Personally, I wondered - is it lacking integrity to be unfair to someone because they themselves lacked integrity?

This is not really a defense of Nixon - except that the comment was taken out of its original context - but it is sometimes equally troubling when one considers what Hollywood seems to be immune from - being questioned about the integrity with which they approach their filmmaking.

I am glad the film is out and it does remind us of how power of any kind can eat away at someone's soul.