Tuesday, May 12, 2009

POTUS on Scrren

"I gave them a sword. And they stuck it in, and twisted it - with relish." Who gave us these words, a little graphic, maybe, but memorable nonetheless? Shakespeare? O'Neill? Albee? Mailer? Actually, these are the real life words of Richard M. Nixon, describing the personal consequences of the Watergate mess in the early 70's. I guess it's inevitable that as people pass further back into history, we lose our collective memory of what they were like and the tipping points of their times. It's a good thing, then, that Nixon and others turn up in the movies from timer to time, even though what they contain is more a national than a personal remembrance.
I rented"Frost/Nixon" last week mostly because of a long fascination with Nixon himself. I wanted to see how he would be portrayed in this movie, based on a play of the same name. It's the story of TV personality David Frost and a small staff working to line up a series of interviews with the former president three years after he had resigned the presidency in disgrace in 1974. They meet Nixon's price, over half a million dollars, then set about to make the interviews worth it. Frost especially is under pressure, hung out on a financial limb because the networks decline to back the project.
Nixon controls the early interviews because Frost is ill-prepared and reluctant to interupt Nixon's ramblings, which are designed to consume interview time. The tide finally turns, however, as the discussion turns to Watergate. Frost succeeds in getting Nixon to (almost) apologize for the whole thing He does admit letting down the nation and himself, but not before another memorable line or two that have passed into the public memory. Many people might know, for instance, the Nixon defense, as cited by the Bush folks - "If the president does it, then it's not illegal." That also came from the Frost interviews.
I'm not a movie critic, though we all have our preferences, right? Actor Frank Langella plays Nixon in a larger-than-life kind of way since he seems literally larger than the real life Nixon, who was of just average size. He seems much more like the real thing than Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" from a few years back. I don't recall"Frost/Nixon's" rating, but it might have been "R", since Nixon was not averse to bad language. If you can get past that, and have any interest at all in history, I recommend the movie.

Speaking of Oliver Stone, his latest movie, "W.", is concerned with George W. Bush. If you watch this one expecting rough treatment for the former president, your expectations will be met. Some of the characters, "Poppy" Bush, Laura and Colin Powell manage to escape with a little dignity, but others are skewered. Richard Dreyfuss isn't quite as menacing as the real Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton seems a little closer to Lily Tomlin than Condelizza Rice and the Karl Rove character is predictably loathsome. There are things to chuckle at, but you can't help coming away thinking that we now know what the country would have been like had a mid-level PR guy from NASCAR awoke one day to find himself the new POTUS - President of the United States. I guess Ron Howard, producer of "Frost/Nixon" had it right in concluding that more interesting characters make for better movies.


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