Friday, December 12, 2008

Shaking hands with the devil

When Richard M. Nixon shows up for a taping of his famed interviews with British TV personality David Frost -- in the new movie "Frost/Nixon" -- James Restin Jr., a young academic and researcher who regarded Nixon as the embodiment of anti-democratic evil, is asked whether he's going to shake hands with the Great Satan of Watergate.

Of course not, says Restin. But then RMN enters the room, a clear and lumbering presence. Restin's resolve disappears. He shakes Nixon's hand.

I had a similar though decidedly less dramatic experience. While attending graduate school at Syracuse University during the late '60s, I worked part-time for the Syracuse Herald Journal. One evening, I was dispatched by my editor to cover a speech Nixon was giving to whip up support for a Republican congressional candidate. Nixon was doing the rolled-up sleeves dirty work that kept him alive with Republicans, even after it seemed that his career had sputtered, flamed and reduced itself to ash. Like many successful men, Nixon was not easily daunted.

Although I grew up in a household in which the name "Nixon" never was uttered without contempt, I lacked the stern convictions of my union-loyal father and my fiery leftist mom. I was more amused by Nixon than appalled. Remember, we're talking about the time when most of us were convinced we wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. Nixon, who evidently didn't take his political obituary as seriously as we did, appeared at the Onondaga War Memorial, a venue at which circuses, ice shows and concerts were more common than political rallies. A great portion of the arena had been walled off so that no one would notice that the crowd was a bit sparse. Before Nixon appeared, a warm-up speaker divided the audience into three sections, asking each to chant one part of Nixon's name. "RICHARD!" yelled section one when given the signal. "M!" roared section two. "NIXON!" chanted section three.

Prior to his speech, Nixon met briefly with reporters. He walked around a small reception room, introducing himself. I remember New York Post columnist Murray Kempton, who had the look of a wry and intelligent stork, watching the scene with an amused smirk. (For those who don't know, the Post once was a liberal newspaper.) Nixon approached me, stuck out his hand, and said, "I'm Richard Nixon," which I already knew. I shook his hand -- the only presidential hand I've ever touched -- but never mentioned it to my parents. Why the hell Nixon would want to shake hands with a journalism student working part-time at an upstate New York newspaper was -- and still is -- a mystery to me. I guess he was an indiscriminate campaigner.

When Restin shakes Nixon's hand in the mesmerizing and entirely absorbing "Frost/Nixon," the gesture has a different meaning. It's meant to show that Nixon still could generate his strange political mojo and that even a hardened researcher, a man who knew every nook and cranny of the voluminous Watergate canon, might briefly fall under Nixon's spell.

What fascinated me about "Frost/Nixon," a big-screen adaptation of Peter Morgan's play, has little to do with the Frost interviews, famed for Nixon's admission of his profound personal failures during Watergate. No, I was taken by Frank Langella's portrayal of Nixon. At times, Langella captures the Nixon look -- the sagging jowls, the widow's peak that left a peninsula of hair down the middle of his forehead, the way he tended to lean forward, a man on the prowl. But those of us who've seen Richard Nixon know that Langella is not Nixon. That sometimes distracted me but in ways that proved oddly beneficial to the movie. It forced me to focus on how Langella was interpreting Nixon, the shrewd, insecure man who felt his betters would scorn him no matter what he accomplished. Langella captures the sly intelligence and the sense of inevitable defeat in Nixon, who -- at least to me -- looked like a loser, even during his moments of greatest triumph.

Director Ron Howard, who overcomes any stage-bound qualities that might have smothered the movie, creates an absorbing character study, a clear-eyed look at man who never could take his eye off the door leading to the corridors of power, even when it already had slammed in his face.

Michael Sheen's Frost is less interesting, perhaps inevitably so. He's portrayed as an ambitious, shallow man with a taste for parties and women. The Frost of the movie knows how to have fun, an activity at which Nixon never excelled. According to the movie, Frost saw Nixon as a target of opportunity. He was less interested in mining the deepest layers of Nixon's guilt than in reviving a sagging TV career. Frost bought (and almost couldn't pay for) the Nixon interviews, the first the disgraced president had granted since he resigned his office. Ultimately, the movie pits the shallow man against the cagey man, and finds drama in the fact that the two men move in opposite directions at the same time. During the precise moment Frost rises to the occasion, Nixon hits his bottom.

To totally embrace "Frost Nixon," I suppose you have to be willing to acknowledge Nixon's humanity. The Nixon of this movie still may be Tricky Dick, but he's oddly pitiable, a vassal who rose to be king and then fell again -- albeit into the luxurious comforts of his San Clemente estate.

Another way of saying this is that Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay, invites us to shake hands with Nixon, to simultaneously condemn his actions and understand his profoundly flawed humanity. As a young journalism student, I'd already shaken Nixon's hand, so I had no trouble going along with the movie, which comes neither to praise nor to bury Nixon but to excavate and analyze his endlessly fascinating character.

The whole thing proves compelling, even if Howard can't quite sell us on the idea that we're watching an epic battle of wits, two fighters thrust into a television ring, each with their corner men. Kevin Bacon does fine work as Nixon advisor Jack Brennan. Oliver Platt (as Bob Zellnick) and Sam Rockwell (as Restin) bicker with Frost as they push him to dig deeper.

Langella surely will be nominated for an Oscar, and may well win, although Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk should give him a run for his money. Consider the delicious irony of a potential Penn win. A gay politician would have beaten Richard M. Nixon in a posthumous battle neither could have anticipated. It just might make the Oscars -- watched more out of a sense of duty than anticipation -- into something truly memorable.

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