Richard Nixon resonates in history as one of the more fascinating presidents in American history. Loathed, hopefully never repeated, but still fascinating.
Parts paranoid, self-loathing, brilliant, maniacal and most of all bent on vengeance and defeating all enemies real or imagined, his enormous shadow still hangs over our politics. Just not as dark as it used to be. With Barack Obama's victory, the Nixonian dynamics of "hippie draft dodger vs. quiet, upstanding Americans" is quietly dying away. Republican or conservative voters can't play the law and order card anymore (hello, torture and illegal wiretapping) and the liberal/progressive/Democratic voters are breaking free of the stereotype of the stringy-haired, jobless radicals. There's a new dynamic and a changing, younger, more diverse voting bloc in America now.
This long preamble comes from my visit to the local theater to see Frost/Nixon, which depicts the famous interview the then-recently resigned president gave to the Ryan Seacrest of his time, a British TV host named David Frost.
Frost steps out on a flimsy limb, financially and career-wise, to pay around 2 million to score the sit-down. Actually, it's more like a face-off. Nixon seeks to rehab his image while Frost aims to give Nixon the trial he never got, and if all goes to plan, draw out a confession.
I can't find anything wrong with this movie. The direction, the writing, the plot and the acting all work to near perfection. The standout aspect is without a doubt Frank Langella as Nixon. He doesn't look like Nixon. He's in the ballpark with the voice. He just NAILS the characterization. A wounded, bitter man who still wants to believe he did what he had to do but knows somewhere in the corner of his conscious that he broke the law and damaged the presidency irreparably.
He lumbers around his beautiful California villa with some loyal staff, recounting tales of Mao and Brezhnev like a lovable grandfather. Langella draws every ounce of humanity from a man who was and still is a symbol for the dangers of unchecked executive power. Born poor and neglected, Nixon always needed something to prove and always needed someone to defeat.
They released this movie at a great time, as another president sulks out of the White House in utter disgrace, his name all but a profanity to three-quarters of this nation. Unlike Nixon, I never get the sense George Bush feels conflicted about his actions as president. There was a very public dark side Nixon could never hide, the battle between good and evil raged on his face. Evil won more often that not. But at least there was a fight.
Does Bush go through that battle when he's not in front of the cameras? I've yet to see it. All we get is that blank, smug look of satisfaction, of willful ignorance and delusion. I couldn't help but make the comparison as the movie reached its conclusion. It will bounce around in my mind for a while.
Seperate from current events, the movie is worth the watch. It's suspenseful enough and it's a more efficient character study than Oliver Stone's Nixon. Langella just has the perfect face to portray the man, worn down by decades of built up anger and vendettas.
And maybe in 20 or 30 years, Ryan Seacrest will score an interview with George W. Bush and we'll get our confession and Bush will get his trial. Then someone can make Seacrest/Bush.
If so, I hope it's half as good as Frost/Nixon.
****1/2 (out of *****)