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Bright Wall/Dark Room February 2017: "'Frost/Nixon' and the Feeling That This Has All Happened Before" by Katherine Webb

We are pleased to feature an excerpt from the February 2017 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, which is entitled "True Stories." Along with this essay about "Frost/Nixon" by Katherine Webb, the new issue features essays on "Adaptation," "Stories We Tell," "Capote," "Amadeus," "Zodiac," "Bernie," "Boys Don't Cry," "Looking for Richard" and a longform interview with Guillermo del Toro on art, morality, movies, life and death.

You can read previous excerpts from the magazine here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or purchase a copy of their current issue, go here.

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“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

– The presidential oath of office

The villains in my childhood home weren’t always in books and movies. My family was tuned in deep to current events; to the highs and lows of the economy, of culture, of the political spectrum. To my parents, and to me, sometimes the bad guys were politicians, especially the ones who abused their power. And for that very reason, for much of my life, Richard Nixon was like the boogeyman.

I came by that feeling honestly. My father saw most public figures through the lens of hindsight; World War II, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and 9/11. He saw our past presidents not for the whole of their tenure but for singular policies they enacted and how they influenced the defining cultural moments of his life.

JFK was good, because he stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Reagan was bad because he was a driving force behind trickle-down economics.

When I asked my dad once who his least favorite president was, he spit out the name through something tantamount to a sneer. Just a kid then, maybe seven years old, I was taken aback by his uncharacteristic vitriol.

“Richard Nixon,” he told me. When I asked why, he only said, “He did some very bad things.”

It took me years of history and political science classes to understand the depth of my father’s disdain for our 37th president. I learned to associate him with words like “Vietnam draft,” “Watergate,” and “impeachment.” On a purely reasonable level, I could see why my father, and anyone else, would think so poorly of a man elected to protect and defend our nation.

But it was textbook stuff, a glimpse into a history I would never completely grasp, if only for the simple fact that I was not there to experience it.

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***

History has not been kind to Richard Nixon. Nor, by and large, has pop culture. In the years since his fall from grace, he’s been the subject of dozens of films, and nearly all of them focus largely on his failings. All The President’s Men makes heroes out of the journalists that took his administration down. Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic, Nixon, attempts to paint his life in complex strokes, but is also unrelenting in its detailed depiction of his tricky maneuvering and abuses of power. Even a dark comedy like Dick manages to make a mockery of his tenure in the White House, by imagining a world in which two ditzy teens could get to the bottom of the Watergate scandal.

Last year’s Elvis & Nixon was perhaps one of the only films that hasn’t made him a pure antagonist, in either his own story, or in those of others. In Kevin Spacey’s surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Nixon, he is recast as a man who finds an unexpected kinship with a fading rock and roll icon; a man who feels misunderstood by a world that’s rapidly leaving him behind.

When it comes to getting into the psyche of Nixon, there may be no better film than Robert Altman’s Secret Honor. It serves as 90-minute foray into one man’s personal hell. It imagines a solitary Nixon—played to angry, unstable, incoherent perfection by Phillip Baker Hall— monitoring his surroundings via close-circuit cameras, drinking whiskey and recording himself as he tries to make sense of the situation he has found himself in.

He is paranoid, defiant, sure of his innocence—and dangerously close to a psychological break. He paces his study, verbally rehashing his every political squabble, sending curses to his enemies into the void. Secret Honor might be the most fictional story of the bunch, but it also seems to get the closest to helping us understand who Richard Nixon actually was.

On some level, though, all of these movie portrayals blend together into a sort-of singular cinematic imagining of his persona and his psyche. Nixon was a man with a mind that never seemed to stop churning out thoughts and ideas, even while being unable to truly grasp reality. He was a man obsessed with status and power, so much so that he would stop at almost nothing to achieve it. He was a man who effortlessly shifted the blame for his every wrongdoing and often cast himself as a victim. He was a lonely man who buried his insecurities underneath a fragile façade of confidence.

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He was a man that was never fit to be president.

We see these shades of Nixon, all of them, cumulatively, in Ron Howard’s film, Frost/Nixon. Based on Peter Morgan’s play of the same name, it offers up an inside look into how, against all probability, David Frost’s monumental interviews with a disgraced President Nixon came to be back in 1977.

Richard Nixon saw the invitation from Frost, a puff-piece journalist of the highest degree, as his chance for redemption in the public eye. He knew what people thought of him and believed that fielding questions from a starry-eyed entertainer like Frost could give him the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

In Frost/Nixon, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella bring their respective characters to life with a remarkable proficiency (they both originated the roles on stage as well). Sheen gives the most believable, nuanced, and rich performance of his life as the woefully underprepared and overly-confident journalist. But Frost/Nixon truly belongs to Langella, who disappears inside Richard Nixon’s insidious skin. He doesn’t play the former president so much as he breathes a new, unsteady life into him. You get a sense, almost immediately, of what it must have been like to be in a room with Nixon. He is charismatic, manipulative, charming, underhanded, candid and elusive. He often does this all with a glint in his eye, a subtle lift of his lip, a seemingly inconsequential gesture.

You understand, when you see Langella’s Nixon, both how he got as far as he did and how he came to be where he was when the filmbegins: isolated in his California estate, longing for an audience, awaiting a vindication that would never come.

***

Frost/Nixon bounces back and forth between the two men’s camps as they conceive of, prepare for, and film the interviews. At times, it plays like a glossy biopic, one that nips and tucks periods of time into tidy montages, one that gives us a 10,000-yard view of the inner machinations of the titular characters’ minds.

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When Frost/Nixon is at its best, though, it transforms into something else: part edge-of-your-seat political thriller, part cautionary tale. History, and our own understanding of Richard Nixon’s bad deeds, tell us that David Frost is the hero of this story. But Frost/Nixon dangles the possibility that he will not prevail in front of us more than once to make sure we keep watching, forgetting that we know he will.

It also serves as a primer on Nixon for those of us who didn’t live through his presidency and its fallout. It offers up entire segments of the Frost/Nixon interviews, so we can hear the man, in his own words, attempt to validate his legacy.

By and large, these interviews center around Nixon overpowering Frost’s various attempts at probing, by way of a masterful obfuscation. What they’re remembered for, indeed what the entire film really builds to, is a stunning moment that feels stranger than fiction—and uncomfortably prescient today. In Frost’s final interview with Nixon, the journalist manages to finally get the better of him by bringing up a previously unreleased detail that implies the president knew about the Watergate break-in before he said he did. Nixon is flustered, off his guard, and lets on more than he means to.

Richard Nixon: Look, when you’re in office you gotta do a lot of things sometimes that are not always in the strictest sense of the law, legal, but you do them because they’re in the greater interest of the nation.

David Frost: Alright, wait, wait just so I understand correctly, are you really saying that in certain situations the President can decide whether it’s in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal?

Richard Nixon: I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.

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It’s a horrifying statement, one with dire and unsettling implications about how much authority we give those in power and—more importantly—how much they take. It’s also the turning point for the interviews, which had previously been struggling to find sponsors and distribution; for Frost, who is gobsmacked by the president’s words; and for Nixon, who effectively condemns himself to disgrace by his admission.

If you subscribe to Frost/Nixon’s greater narrative, Frost didn’t enter into the interviews to procure some kind of national catharsis. His hopes weren’t any higher than a ratings success and a chance to revive his career.  He didn’t intend to be the person who would make Richard Nixon crack. He just wanted to make good TV.

It’s hard to say, through the murky lens of history, when exactly it was that politics and entertainment converged. But at some point, they became one and the same, and dangerously so.

Nixon laments to Frost early in the film that TV effectively killed his first campaign for president, because he was sweating under the hot studio lights. Today, you can do a whole lot more than that and still be elected, it seems. But at least it makes for a hell of a show.

***

There is but one sequence in the film that, by all accounts, cannot be historically confirmed. As the third interview—the one in which Nixon will ultimately give up the ghost—draws near, the president drunkenly calls Frost to commiserate with him.

He sees the journalist as a sparring partner in a good old-fashioned game of political sport. He also sees in him a man who is, like him, misunderstood and underestimated.  

Richard Nixon: That's our tragedy, you and I, Mr. Frost. No matter how high we get, they still look down at us.

David Frost: I really don't know what you're talking about.

Richard Nixon: Yes you do. Now come on. No matter how many awards or column inches are written about you, or how high the elected office is, it's still not enough. We still feel like the little man. The loser. They told us we were a hundred times, the smart asses in college, the high ups. The well-born. The people who's respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn't that why we work so hard now, why we fight for every inch? Scrambling our way up in undignified fashion. If we're honest for a minute, if we reflect privately, just for a moment, if we allow ourselves a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn't that why we're here? Now? The two of us. Looking for a way back into the sun. Into the limelight. Back onto the winner's podium. Because we can feel it slipping away. We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us that we'd end up. Face in the dust, humiliated all the more for having tried. So pitifully hard. Well, to hell with that! We're not going to let that happen, either of us. We're going to show those bums, we're going to make 'em choke on our continued success. Our continued headlines! Our continued awards! And power! And glory! We are gonna make those motherfuckers choke!

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The scene is, in many ways, reminiscent of Secret Honor in its assessment of Richard Nixon’s psyche. It makes me think, too, of his foreign policy initiative, dubbed the “madman theory,” in which he and his advisors tried to convince Communist leaders in Vietnam and the Soviet Union that he was, in fact, unhinged; willing to do anything, including use nuclear weapons, to end America’s conflicts overseas.

Indeed, for just a moment, you wonder if he is, in fact, sane, or simply trying one more tactic to achieve a psychological upper hand. The lines are further blurred when Frost later mentions the phone call to Nixon and the former president seems to have no recollection of it occurring. Whether he did or he didn’t almost doesn’t matter; indeed, either option is equally unsettling.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from Frost/Nixon, though, it is not just that Nixon purposely deceived the American people for his own political gain. It’s not just that he wasn’t fit to lead this country. It’s not that he broke the law and deserved to live a life mostly in exile because of that. Rather it is that when we, as a people, are presented with the truth, in black and white, we still find a way to color it with our own understanding.

The Frost/Nixon interviews were, by all historical accounts, a spectacle when they first aired. Now, they are mostly a footnote. At some point in the last forty years, we managed to accept, as a voting populace, a revelation that should have shaken us to our core.

When the president does it, it’s not illegal.

***

Frost/Nixon is a film that is, in almost every frame, about politics—the politics of entertainment, and politics as entertainment. It’s also a film that isn’t ever explicitly political. Howard is careful not to deviate from the historical facts and anecdotes that informed the script and its story. It often feels simply like facts being retold, albeit in a way that’s both compelling and unnerving.

Perhaps that is why, despite all the acclaim and accolades the film received upon its release, it has largely been forgotten today. For all its tension and brilliant performances, for Howard’s careful attention to detail and ability to make a fairly straightforward story so compelling, we mostly ignored it because Nixon, and all he did, and all he said, was behind us.

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In 2008, the year it hit theaters, we had just elected Barack Obama. We were flush with hope for a brighter future, ready for an inclusiveness that so many of us craved during the Bush years. If anything, at the time of its release Frost/Nixon read like a commentary on our previous leaders’ sketchy finagling around the rules of fair play. It felt more like a well-crafted footnote than a warning.

Frost/Nixon didn’t honor the bravery of past activists, like its fellow Best Picture nominee, Milk. It didn’t tap into our emotional well, beg our sympathies, or pull our heartstrings. It didn’t uncover a dark secret from our history and bring it into the light. But it did hone in on a dangerous, rippling undercurrent that still runs through our political climate. It laid bare the failings of our governmental system; that a president could lie, and then lie about lying. That he could be pardoned when so many Americans desperately wanted justice; that he could, finally, claim that he was above the law.

We watch historical dramas and swear we will remember the past, learning from our mistakes. But sometimes, these films merely allow us to check off a history lesson and move on.

Frost/Nixon was more than that. Or, if it wasn’t, then it should have been. Itreminds us of a precedent that can make monsters out of men; that can lead countries into war, or upheaval, or tyranny, with little repercussion.

It reminds us that facts presented as entertainment can lose their impact; that our governing body being treated as little more than fodder for primetime television can weaken it, maybe even demolish it.

It reminds us that legality is fluid; that truth can be, too, in the wrong hands.

***

At this moment, there are some people, somewhere, celebrating a man who is in many ways similar to Richard Nixon—in mindset, in demeanor, and in his approach to governing. These people have been inspired and emboldened by his astonishing ascent to political power.

But those paying close attention can already estimate the potential turmoil and crises that his time in office could bring about. We know, because we heard in history class, that sometimes presidents don’t really have our nation’s best interests in mind.

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I would wager almost anything that we will look back on the next few years with remorse and unease. We will ask ourselves, “How did we let this happen?” We will tell ourselves we can’t let it happen again.

If the cycle of world events—World War II, civil rights, McCarthyism, and yes, Nixon—tells us anything, it’s that we won’t learn a damn thing from this mistake. We will build ourselves up and tear ourselves down, time and again, thanks to our collective, self-destructive short-term memory.  

My father‘s opinion of Richard Nixon never wavered throughout his life. Even in the years of George W. Bush, of two unnecessary wars and policies that shoveled money at the rich while the economy slid into an abyss, he remained firm in his disgust for the man.

In his last days, he was prone to throwing his hands up in frustration at the state of the presidential race and its potential outcome. Dad died 198 days before the 2016 election, and 271 days before Inauguration Day.  It’s a small comfort that the possibility of a nouveau Nixonian commander-in-chief still seemed far-fetched when he left us.

Because my conversations with him informed so much of my early understandings of government, and politics, and how things should work, I’ve thought of him often these last few months. What would he say about the state of things? What advice would he expound about the days ahead?

Then, I remember: He taught me to be wary of men like Richard Nixon, of men who seemingly have no intention of upholding the oath they’ve made to their country. He taught me to never let my anger at people like him subside. He taught me not to be quiet about it, to watch closely and look past the lies.

And in times like these, that might be the very best wisdom he could have offered.

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