The LFF has chosen well for its opening night. Ahead of the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in New York tonight, Frost/Nixon, the tale of a president undone in a television interview, has its world premiere in London tonight.
Surely you know the story? The 37th president of the United States was involved in some bad stuff called Watergate (let’s ignore the wars and other things for now) in 1972. After this came to light, Richard Milhous Nixon (Frank Langella) duly resigned in 1974 and went a bit quiet in Florida until 1977. Then, cheesy light-entertainment TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) asks for an interview, and is granted one, for the easy money and questions. Frost’s researchers find some good evidence for him to annihilate Nixon with. Nixon confesses to wrongdoing on TV. Frost goes on to greater things, Nixon gets to be remembered for that “I’m not a crook,” line, and through the naming of Milhouse van Houten in The Simpsons.
The popularity of documentary in British and American cinema, among others, seems to have given way to historical re-enactment, and the London Film Festival is hosting a whole load of this kind of film. In recent years, issues ranging from American healthcare (Sicko, 2007) to global warming (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006), the coffee trade (Black Gold, 2006) to British civil rights (Taking Liberties, 2007), have been explored in films striving to be factual and objective. Now, it’s all about reimagining the past.
W., Hunger, The Baader-Meinhof Complex and Citizen Havel are all showing over the next week and a half, which shows the great emphasis on political cinema this year. British director Nick Broomfield, famous for making documentaries, turned to dramatic reconstruction last year to make Battle for Haditha (2007), which plays out again a 2005 massacre carried out by US Marines in Iraq. There is of course Oliver Stone’s W., a last jeer at President George W. Bush as he leaves office. Even a Turner-prize winning artist has got in on the act: Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), about the 1981 death of IRA member Bobby Sands in prison after his hunger strike. The brutality of the titular German terrorists in The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008) will be seen again in a horrific, rather than heroic, light, especially in scenes where a hostage is made to hold signs while being filmed speaking rehearsed lines, a precursor to current Al-Qaeda methods.
In fact, when a political film using real archive footage comes along – such as the labour of love that is Citizen Havel (2008), it looks almost too quaintly authentic, without the patina of our present concerns superimposed over the top. The documentary shows Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, in the past, far removed from our current concerns. It is almost alienating to see the younger versions of Bill Clinton and The Rolling Stones pop up in the film. We’re starting to get used to seeing figures from the past being portrayed by someone other than themselves. The premise – Havel’s friend follows him around with a camera, even into the dressing room – is much simpler than Frost/Nixon‘s TV interview within a contemporary documentary style. In Frost/Nixon, the characters also pop up as talking heads, still clearly the same age as they were in the events, adding another layer of distance between the viewer and the original, real events.
The movement from “fact” to “fiction” (a reconstruction must contain a bit of dramatisation in it somewhere) in filming style might signal a shift from blinding us with facts to grasping for our heartstrings. Frost/Nixon, with a dinosaur of British TV and a crooked ex-president who died in 1994 at its centre, paints Richard Nixon as charming, eliciting laughs from the press screening audience, whereas David Frost remains a bit lightweight for much of the film. If you know your history, though, you’ll know how the tables are turned: with Nixon’s simple, unguarded admission, “when the president does it [something illegal], that means that it is not illegal.” This, above all else, is the line that has come to truly define his attitude to the presidency:
Frost/Nixon, adapted from the stage play by its writer, Peter Morgan, takes us behind the scenes of political theatre and TV preparation, a subject that can’t fail to interest keen followers of all the many, many, many Sarah Palin media moments that she has gifted to us in the last month – and Tina Fey’s uncanny re-enactments of them on Saturday Night Live. As one of Frost’s “crack investigators,” Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell), says, “Television simplifies, it diminishes… the reductive power of the close-up.” He worries that Frost might, inadvertently, let the verbose Nixon talk all over him and so help Nixon to “look presidential,” despite his disgrace.
In an age where we watch politicians and catch news headlines or highlights, rather than really listening closely to their ideas, it is unsurprising that just a few fragments of Nixon – he’s not a crook, he might have done something illegal, that perspiring upper lip – have become the sum total of what we know of him. The film’s reconstruction of the events surrounding the fateful interview attempt to flesh Nixon out: to convey something of his sense of humour, his affection for his wife, and his deep guilt over “devaluing the presidency.”
The Nixon who leaves that last day of filming with Frost is a different creature to the one who’s been there throughout the film. Finally broken – but, it is suggested, also relieved at having released the truth – Nixon can barely hold his head up, and walks somnolently over to stroke a dog in a bystander’s arms. Compared to the Nixon who had earlier joked about Russian leaders having to fear being bugged (oh, the script really goes with the spying references throughout) and then ferociously challenged Frost over the phone, the post-interview man is ghostly, facing up to the lonely years ahead where he will become nothing more than that crooked president. Of course, in real life, Nixon got a better deal than that, and he shows an ability to be magnanimous when Frost visits him at home one last time.
The acting is great – especially Frank Langella as the ex-president – the script is great (oh the irony of Frost buying a replica of his own shoes for Nixon), the period detail is done nicely. If those reasons don’t get you to go and see it, the promise of a moment where Nixon asks Frost whether he fornicated the night before, just as they go on-air, should.
Frost/Nixon premieres at the London Film Festival tonight, and also screens on 18th October. Both screenings are booked up, but the film will be released in the UK on 9th January 2009.
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